Urban Beekeeping for Beginners

Urban beekeeping refers to keeping bee hives in a residential location or city, instead of a rural area. The practice of keeping bees in urban and residential areas has grown in recent years, partly due to widespread concern for the health of the honey bee population. Today, beekeeping has expanded from the country into municipalities and residential neighborhoods everywhere. From cities big and small to backyard plots and rooftops, beekeeping is thriving in urban areas worldwide. Though the layout and scenery look different, the art of beekeeping in city limits is very similar to the way you would keep bees in rural areas. There are, however, a few factors to consider before you begin urban beekeeping.

Are you allowed to keep bees in a residential area?

Beekeeping is legal in many residential areas and major cities around the U.S., including Washington D.C., New York City, San Francisco, and Detroit—as long as beekeepers follow regulations. Check with your local authorities to find out if beekeeping is legal in your city. There could be specific regulations within city limits, such as where you can keep hives or how far away they must sit from property lines. In most states, the Department of Agriculture requires hive registration so they can make routine inspections to check for disease.

Research the legalities of keeping bees in a residential area and register with the proper authorities before you set up a hive. Installing a hive where it’s not allowed could result in fines or removal. Don’t give up hope if your town or city has banned beekeeping, though: local rules can be changed with organized lobbying from citizens who want to connect with nature through keeping bees.

Do you need a garden to keep bees in the city?

A common concern regarding urban beekeeping is the perceived lack of flowers in the city. But, urban honey bees have access to a diverse selection of flowers and plants to feed on. If there are no flowers directly near your hive, don’t worry: bees will search within a two-mile radius to find a park, garden, patio planter, or window box. This fosters pollination around your neighborhood, making urban beekeeping a win-win situation for everyone.

Though you don't need a garden to host the urban honey bee, you can help them out by bringing in a few of their favorite flowers—try lavender, marigolds, and sunflowers. You can also supplement their diet by filling feeders for your bees when temperatures become too warm or cold for foraging.

Top 5 urban beekeeping tips for beginners

Keeping bees takes dedication and time. Attend a beekeeping class or event to learn all you can—direct from experienced beekeepers—before you begin. If you’re interested in keeping bees at your urban or residential location, follow these five steps to prepare for your beekeeping journey.

1. Research urban beekeeping before you start

Any new hobby requires research—and urban beekeeping is no exception. Unfortunately, some people jump into beekeeping because it’s the trendy thing to do, without appropriate preparation. There are many informative beekeeping books and videos to expand your bee knowledge. Explore our newsletter archives for helpful tips on bee hive management and explore educational websites for current information on beekeeping in urban areas.

As you research, consider these questions:

  • Where will I put my hives?
  • How many hives do I want?
  • Is there a legal limit on how many hives I may set up?
  • How many hives do I have space to maintain?
  • What is the best way to maintain my hives?
  • Will I harvest and process my own honey and beeswax?

2. Get buy-in on your urban beekeeping plans

After you’ve determined that it’s legal to keep bees in your residential area, if you rent, talk to your landlord. If your property is managed by a Homeowner’s Association (HOA), discuss your beekeeping plans with them. Prepare yourself with information from local and state authorities and lay out your beekeeping agenda. Your landlord may want to know where you will install your hives, so provide details about your intended set-up.

Let your neighbors know about your urban bee project before you set up your first hive. Get your neighbors on board by:

  • Sharing pamphlets about bees
  • Directing them to informational websites
  • Promising gifts from the hive — jars of honey turn neighbors into friends
  • Allowing them to observe as you tend the hives
  • Inviting them to a local beekeeping club or association meeting
Safety tip: To protect your hives and people around you, set ground rules with all of your neighbors about visiting the bees when you’re not there.

3. Pick a spot for your urban apiary

Once you have approval for your urban apiary, make the final decision about where you’ll keep your bees. Make sure that neighbors, workers, and the general public won’t be near enough to bother your bees (or vice versa) regularly.  Look for a small area in the yard that’s not near a gathering space, with a nearby water source, plenty of shade, and a windbreak. If there isn’t a natural source for water close by, you can create one: A shallow fountain or dish filled with fresh water is ideal, but keep your bees safe by adding rocks or marbles so they have a place to land.

You may want to elevate and secure your hives on a sturdy stand or base so they don't rest directly on the ground or pavement. If your building doesn’t have an appropriate place to keep bees, look into renting space in a community garden for your hives. Or, perhaps a neighbor has available land and will let you set up your hive—they'll benefit too when your bees pollinate their garden. Remember: Never install a bee hive on a fire escape; it’s illegal.

4. Consider urban rooftop beekeeping

Urban rooftop beekeeping is popular with people who live in apartments or city buildings with no yard. Restaurants, bars, and luxury hotels in major cities—including in London, Paris, Boston, Sydney, Toronto, and Frankfurt—have thriving urban rooftop hives where they raise bees and harvest their honey for use in food, drink, and spa treatments.

If you have access to your rooftop, and permission to use it, follow the same rules as you would for a hive on the ground: water, shade, and windbreak. Keep in mind that a light-colored roof or a green roof is better for your bees since blacktop and tar roofs attract heat. Excess heat can affect bees negatively—they must work harder to stay cool when the temperature inside the hive rises too far above their ideal 95 degrees F.

5. Seek support for your urban beekeeping efforts

One of the best benefits of beekeeping is being part of the beekeeping community. There is always something new to learn—whether you’re a beginner or long-time beekeeper—and you can draw on the experiences of others. Join an urban beekeeping club or find a mentor in your area.

Beekeeping can be a collaborative effort, too. Combine your beekeeping efforts with a friend or neighbor. If you decide to harvest your honey, reduce expenses by finding a cooperative honey house in your city, or borrow equipment from your local beekeeping association.

Once you’ve done all of the research, talked to your neighbors, and cleared your hives with the landlord, you can start shopping. Purchase protective gear and tools and buy, prep, and set up your bee hive kits before you bring your bees home. Keep researching, too: There’s always more to learn about beekeeping.