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Honeybees, bumblebees and other native bees have been declining for decades, and the rate of decline continues to increase. Why? There is no simple answer. Some will say the problem stems from pesticides. Others claim that mites are the issue. Still others suggest their weakening stems from issues ranging from pollution to cellphones. Even if we aren’t sure why the bees are in decline, urban gardeners can help rebuild their populations through simple methods like offering diverse food sources, reducing the use of pesticides in our home gardens and building safer habitats for visiting bees. As well, many cities allow residential gardeners to keep honeybee hives on their property, so importing them to our diverse garden may also provide them some respite.
If you are just getting started and need help understanding the rules as well as how to keep bees, joining a local beekeeping association before you do anything else is your best move. Through these groups you may be able to visit an apiary with a pro, purchase bee packets, suits, hives, smokers and other tools, and attend on-going classes to learn to care for your new wards properly. You may even find that some members will work with you in your garden to set up, care for and manage your hive keeping undertakings. Plus, some beekeepers are now providing at-home services, taking the apiarist work off your shoulders while rewarding you with a garden full of fascinating pollinators and supplying you with a few jars of honey at the end of the season for a small fee.
When embarking on keeping honeybees, always check your local city or county regulations. Before you start buying supplies, be sure honeybees are allowed in your setting. If they are, next determine if you can both position hives in sunny, wind-protected spots where the bees will thrive while also meeting any property line restrictions. Often there are maximum allowable hives per site, property line proximity rules, and limitations on style of hives allowed in city settings. Plus, consider how you use your garden throughout the season. Take care not to site the hives where you live in your garden, like near a favored dining patio space; when they get busy, you’ll want to give them room for take-offs and landings!
Although it may not be required, urban beekeepers will suggest you always discuss your plans for keeping bees with your neighbors and put up signs alerting visitors to the presence of stinging insects on site. Taking the time to teach your neighbors about the importance and benefit of keeping bees will pay off in the end. Scheduling the times you open and work in the hives to not coincide with your neighbor’s big summer party will also help your neighbors embrace your beekeeping forays. Inviting them to meet and experience the bees helps too. Building fascination, dispelling fear, and preparing the neighborhood to embrace the bees isn’t hard at the start. If you wait and try to calm fears after someone gets stung or when your bees swarm – which is a natural part of a healthy hive cycle -- you may be in for some busted up fences that are difficult to mend.
Of course, keeping honeybees isn’t for everyone. It can be costly, time consuming, and of course, the honeybees do sting – though not aggressively like their yellow jacket cousins. For those interested in starting their beekeeping activities more simply and with less cost and lower chance of getting stung, Mason bees may be the answer. Plus, Mason bees and Honeybees happily buzz about together sharing the resources provided in the garden. Mason bees (also known as Orchard Mason bees) are tiny, solitary, short-lived bees that emerge early in spring. These tiny black bees do not produce honey, nor do they live in a hive setting like honeybees. Instead, they hatch from cocoons in early spring at the time orchard trees like apples, pears and cherries are blooming. Stinger-less males emerge first, followed by females. (The girls can sting, but rarely do. If they sting, their toxin level is hardly a bother. ) They mate; the males die. The females forage for nectar while laying eggs in cardboard tubes or drilled boxes installed on warm, sunny spots mounted on the side of homes. By the end of May, their season is finished, and the Mason cocoons remain dormant until the following spring.
Whether you decide to become a beekeeper or not, building habitat through diverse plantings of nectar and pollen rich resources will invite the bees to your garden and help them remain healthy. Mixed plantings of sunflower, zinnia, oregano, thyme, lavender, sage, and dill intermingled with assorted perennials like sedum and echinacea, plus year-round blooming shrubs like sarcoccocca, manzanita, heath and rose will feed the bees and keep them coming back for more.