by Noel Patterson
You can probably keep bees, if you want. Maybe not everyone reading this… but most of you. Really it’s not as hard as you think. I’m not going to give you some cockamamie la la about how everybody can be a beekeeper. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to do, but I’ll say again: it’s not nearly as hard as you think. If you’ve ever grown a tomato successfully in this town, you most likely have enough skill to be able to look after bees. If you have ever brewed a batch of all-grain beer, you almost certainly have the skill to keep a colony of bees in your yard and get the most delicious honey you could possibly imagine with relatively little work. Ninety percent of the effort in beekeeping is simply being able to pay attention. This column is for those of you who might be thinking about doing something with bees but just don’t know where to start. And this information is going to be specific to Tucson, our hot and dry little city, because things are just different here than everywhere else. This column is not going to be about the technical ‘how to’ part of keeping bees–the only way to truly learn the ‘how to’ is to do your research and learn from those who are doing it. What I am going to do here is tell you where to go to find out what you need to know, and hopefully to interest a few of you out there enough to start doing something that I believe is of great benefit to us all.
There are many obvious and reasonable questions about keeping bees, and they’ll be addressed in more detail in future articles, but let’s get the most necessary things to say out of the way right at the start:
FIRST AND FOREMOST: Yes, Africanized bees are an issue in Tucson. A major one. But it is a manageable issue. If you are keeping bees in the city, for the sake of yourself and your community your first management priority will be to control the genetics of your hive so that you can keep calm bees that won’t be dangerous to you or anybody else. Fortunately, this is a pretty easy thing to do. But it is possible to screw it up and I cannot emphasize strongly enough that it is priority number one.
No, you can’t learn how to be a beekeeper online, or just by reading about it. Beekeeping is one of those activities that require a mentor–the only way to learn some necessary parts of this ancient skill is to be shown by somebody who has some experience. Doing so will shorten your learning curve dramatically. Beekeeping around the Southwest U.S.A. has its own set of concerns, completely different than you’ll find anywhere else. There are no books about doing this in our unique climate that I’ve yet found. Most importantly, as there are safety concerns that are specific to our region, there are some beginner’s mistakes that you want to be sure not to make. See above, please. My experience has been that beekeepers around these parts are just about the friendliest and most generous people I know. As a rule, if they have the time to help somebody, especially somebody just getting started who really cares about learning how to do this, they’re happy to give the help. But you do have to get plugged in to the community, and you have to understand that the person who is being so kind as to help you is ultimately trying to help you to be able to do it on your own.
Yes, you will get stung. No matter what. No, your neighbors won’t get stung, if you put your hive in the right place and manage it properly. Know how you will react to the inevitable sting before it happens. So you know beforehand, it hurts like a bitch. The more you get stung the less painful it is, but if you’re not prepared to get stung semi-frequently, stick to the tomatoes for your local food project. And for those with a true allergy, it is potentially very dangerous. That having been said, while it seems that one out of three people think they’re allergic to bees the real number is actually about three percent. So find out if you’re really allergic first and take your neighbors’ and friends’ claims of allergies with a grain of salt. If you’re really worried, keep an epi-pen handy, for which you will need a prescription and is probably a good idea no matter what.
No, you won’t have bees flying all over your or your neighbor’s yard. Bees will fly up to three miles in any direction to find what they need. Bees will forage around this whole area rather than concentrating right next to the hive. If you have flowers in your yard, you’ll have bees, but if they weren’t yours they’d be coming from somewhere else. Bees fill an ecological niche, and that niche will be filled whether you have a hive in your yard or not. My opinion is that one of the greatest benefits to the community of keeping bees in Tucson is that it helps to fill that niche with your sweet, well behaved bees and spreads their genes outward into the population of wild, mostly Africanized bees that we have in our region.
Yes, it is legal in the city limits of Tucson. You are allowed one hive per 2,500 square feet of your property. There are a few other restrictions that if followed will help to keep your bees from being a nuisance to anyone. All are reasonable and you should be doing them anyway.
No it doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. If you have even the most rudimentary woodworking skills you can build a hive pretty cheap, and even out of scrap material if you’re that resourceful. Most of my hives follow a particular design: called a Top Bar Hive, one can be built for around fifty bucks in new materials. Like any activity, there are all kinds of catalogs that are trying to sell you tons of unnecessary paraphernalia. You don’t need all that stuff. There is some equipment that you will have to get, such as a beesuit and a smoker. Of course, bees don’t come for free, but for a few hundred bucks, you can get going. If you sell some of the honey from your hive to friends (which is unbelievably easy to do) it will usually pay for itself after the first year.
Don’t just take my word for it, there are a number of websites for urban beekeeping projects all over the country. There’s an organization in L.A. called Backwards Beekeepers that is especially cool, but just search urban beekeeping and there’s a ton of neat stuff that will come up.
So, you interested?