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Being a Good Neighbor: Early Summer Urban Beekeeping Tips

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2013 June Issue Newsletter

By Nicole Belanger

As allergy sufferers will attest, this year has been a great year for pollen, and area bees and beekeepers alike have had their work cut out for them. Early summer is the most energy intensive time for beekeepers according to Stephanie Elson, urban organic beekeeper who along with her husband runs the Benevolent Bee, based in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood. Stephanie shares some tips for what to expect and how to be prepared this summer.

City bees need space Most important this time of year is to make sure the bees don’t outgrow their hive and swarm. Swarming is the bees’ natural instinct to create a new colony when it has run out of space. Elson urges urban beekeepers to be especially diligent in preventing swarms, as bees will seek out any spacious area to set up a new hive – maybe a neighboring tree or the rafters of your neighbor’s house. Keeping your bees from swarming is good bee PR, says Elson, as well important for preventing the loss of half your bees.

Like an expectant parent, Elson has extra bee boxes waiting, ready to go on a moment’s notice. Checking the bees about once a week is important this time of year, as there are noticeable signs that a hive is preparing to swarm. It’s all about the queen. Keep an eye out for swarm cells at the bottom of your frame, indicating the production of a new queen. Swarm cells look like a peanut shell. Make sure the bees always have enough room to grow and don’t get overcrowded in the hive. What should you do if you notice signs of swarming? “Some beekeepers will tell you that if you see swarm cells in your hive, you should destroy the queen cells, to prevent your hive from swarming,” according to Elson. “We’ve found, though, that the bees will swarm anyway. And, the swarm might have already occurred (half of the bees in the hive already left, with the existing queen) so if you destroy the new queen cells, then you will be left with a queenless hive.

“The best thing to do when you see swarm cells is to perform a hive split -- take each frame that has queen cells on it and put it with some bees from the hive into a new hive box. This makes the bees think that they’ve swarmed already.”

Elson highly recommends new beekeepers, especially those in the city, plan ahead for the inevitable growth of their hives and make sure to have extra room for expansion. You may only want one hive in your yard, but should consider working some flexibility into your space. Bee colonies grow just like pets. Providing a water source Keep your bees and neighbors both happy by providing a close water source. Bees use water to control the temperature and humidity in a hive, according to Elson. She uses a shallow birdbath with rocks that the bees can perch on and drink from. The rocks are important, as the bees will drown if it is just an open container. This will keep bees out of your neighbor’s kiddie pool (or your own!).

Life beyond the staycation Considering beekeeping but don’t want to sacrifice your summer freedom? Rest assured, once swarming season is over (around mid-June) the real week-toweek maintenance is just filling up the water source. While away, ask a neighbor or house sitter to fill up the birdbath while watering the garden. Elson typically checks their hives before leaving for a trip and once she returns, but otherwise leaves them be. She likens hive maintenance for to that of a garden. It requires a lot of up front energy investment early in the season, checking the hive weekly and managing potential swarms, but less so as the season hits its stride.

During the remainder of the summer Elson recommends checking on the bees once every two weeks, as they do better when largely left alone. Elson harvests honey twice per year, once just after the early spring nectar flow and once at the end of the summer, in late August or early September. Patience is key for first-year keepers. “First-year beekeepers are lucky if they get even a small honey harvest at the end of the summer,” says Elson, “a new hive needs a full season just to establish itself, and build comb and colony strength.”

Beehaving vs. Beekeeping Elson also is clear to make a distinction between “beekeeping” and “beehaving”. She considers herself a beekeeper, because though she is organic and does not use antibiotics or other medicines in the hive and has a more hands off approach than some, in the city she really does need to tend to the bees to ensure their success.

Relying on Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques to manage the health of their hives, Elson and her husband don’t treat their hives with pesticides or chemicals of any kind. Some of their IPM methods include using various essential oils (like thyme, spearmint and lemongrass) to ward off mites; or dusting a hive of bees with powdered sugar - the sugar coats the bees and causes the mites to fall off the bees, down through the screened bottom board (another IPM technique - to use a screen at the bottom of your hive instead of a solid board). She feels that not only are their bees doing well, but also they may be doing better than those in other hives using more invasive treatments. Beehavers on the other hand provide a place for the bees to live, as an easy way to collect honey, but do largely leave the bees alone. In rural areas, swarming is less problematic.

Good luck to the aspiring beekeepers out there – hope the summer treats you and your hives well and that you have lots of fun hive products to work with in the coming fall and winter!

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