Challenges of the Urban Beekeeper

Ruth, a professional beekeeper, center, instructs students how to tend bees in a hands-on class in Chatsworth on May 20, 2018. Photos by Annemarie Donkin

What do you do when your domestic bees abandon their hive and a swarm of wild bees moves in?

My first introduction to backyard beekeeping was in February of last year when my fiancé, Jim, cheerily announced, “I have brought home a bee box.”

He was referring to the square box with vertical “frames” where the bees live and produce wax, honey, pollen, and is where the queen lays her eggs.

Our bees arrived in April 2018 inside of a small, screened wooden package of about 10,000 gentle, Italian domestic, fuzzy creatures complete with a bred queen.

Then, we had to “suit up” to install them in our hive box. By then, we had already been taking classes for months and had expert instruction at all levels.

Jim Hoffman inspecting a frame of bees in 2018.

At first, wearing the white cotton coats and heavy gloves felt awkward, but by the time we pried open the hive, installed the box of adorable, buzzy bees and fed them a gallon of sugar syrup in a feeder, we relaxed.

Tragically, two weeks after installing our package of bees, our queen died and we replaced her with the help of a professional beekeeper.

Patient and kind, our teachers reassured us that 20 percent of queen bees die in their first month, so we were still doing “okay.” Considering how little we knew at the time, we took that as a compliment.

Unfortunately, we rapidly lost two more queens and later, our entire hive collapsed due to an infestation of varroa mites that attack the bees, as well as ants and beetles looking for honey.

By last September our entire hive had swarmed and abandoned the box despite our efforts. Feeling defeated after our first colony collapse, we left well enough alone and just left the box intact after moving it to a sunnier location in our backyard.

Lo and behold! April arrived and bees returned! Not our original bees that swarmed in the fall, but a new, wild swarm moved into our old box and made themselves right at home.

That wasn’t necessarily good news.

We learned that if you encounter a swarm of wild bees anywhere in your yard or on your property, you should contact an expert immediately. Make no attempt to catch them and stay far away from the swarm because wild swarms can become aggressive over time and need to be requeened with a docile, domestic queen, a task that must be done by experts.

If you encounter a swarm in your yard, trees, or house, contact The Valley Hive, (818) 280-6500; info@thevalleyhive.com; thevalleyhive.com.

 

A SHORT HISTORY OF BEES

Depictions of humans collecting honey from wild bees date back about 10,000 years and beekeeping in pottery vessels began about 9,000 years ago in North Africa. According to several references, simple hives and smoke were used and honey was stored in jars, some of which were found in the tombs of pharaohs such as Tutankhamun. Europeans brought Western honeybees and crop seeds across the Atlantic in 1622. It wasn’t until the 18th century that European understanding of the colonies and biology of bees allowed the construction of the movable comb hive so that honey could be harvested without destroying the entire colony. In the U.S. until WWII, honey bees were cultivated primarily by farmers for their own crops and up until now, our entire impression of beekeeping is largely from depictions of commercial beekeepers in full white suits and veils smoking hives.

 

RESOURCES

Natural Beekeeping Tips, by Jean Vernon as published in the Telegraph, January 2013.

  • Keep bees for the bees’ sake and value them as pollinators first (apicentric) and honey producers second. 
  • Fill your garden with nectar and pollen-rich plants (particularly in February, March, and June), and avoid use of chemicals. 
  • Allow bees to overwinter on their own honey instead of feeding a sugar substitute. Harvest excess honey only in spring when there is sufficient nectar flow. 
  • Maintain the nest scent and warmth of the hive by opening it only if really needed. 
  • Allow the bees to reproduce naturally by swarming (this also helps break the varroa mite cycle). 
  • Don’t use chemical treatments for disease and pest control (including varroa mite). 
  • Don’t cull the drones (sometimes used for varroa control). 
  • Choose hives that replicate natural sites used by bees, e.g., hollow trees and cavities. 
  • Avoid smoking the bees as this can cause undue stress. 
  • Read The Bee Friendly Beekeeper by David Heaf (NBB).
  • For further information about sun hive workshops, visit naturalbeekeepingtrust.org.

 

LA. COUNTY BEEKEEPING

In California, more than 30 percent of our food source is dependent on bee pollination, so commercial beekeeping is a vital part of our multi-billion-dollar agricultural community. Indeed, it’s the honeybees that remain crucial to our food supply, pollinating billions of dollars of fruit, vegetable, and nut crops every year while collecting food for their hives.

Increasingly, city and suburban dwellers are keeping the beekeeping tradition alive with hives abuzz tucked away into backyards and gardens all over the country. In fact, according to Wikipedia, some have found that “city bees” are actually healthier than “rural bees” because there are fewer pesticides and greater biodiversity from year-round gardens.

Beekeeping in Los Angeles County is at a three-year high, according to Noriel Reyes, Agricultural Inspector III, Apiary/AHB/HazMat Program with the Dept. of Agricultural Commissioner/Weights & Measures in Arcadia.

“Yes, definitely, since 2015, we have seen a threefold increase,” he said in a 2018 phone interview. “We have more registered hives, but a lot more unregistered, because they are a little bit scared that they might be fined or neighbors might call the police.”

Inspector Reyes said there is nothing to fear if you register your hives and follow local city and county regulations: “People are allowed to have those bee boxes at their residences, as long as the city allows it and no bees are overly aggressive.”

For more questions and for a wealth of beekeeping information: losangelescountybeekeepers.com; or e-mail Mr. Reyes at nreyes@acwm.lacounty.com.

Go ahead! Get bees, go to bee classes, read “Beekeeping for Dummies,” get a hive and bee suit, and have a great time enriching your land with Nature’s best little buzzy, fuzzy friends.

 

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