There can be many roadblocks to start beekeeping, especially for wannabe apiarists in urban areas. Perhaps you live in an apartment without a yard, or maybe your neighbors are not compelled by the plight of pollinators and refuse to accept having hives buzzing nearby. Maybe your local zoning ordinances do not allow backyard beekeeping at all.
In some cities around the country, community apiaries are allowing for urban beekeepers to create a safe and supportive place to raise their bees with fellow bee enthusiasts.
What is a community apiary?
Community apiaries offer beekeepers a space to keep their hives in a centralized location with other beekeepers and their hives. Depending on the program, the community apiary may offer hive management support or training, but beekeepers are required to bring their own bees, hives and equipment.
Community apiaries can be found in all different locations, from garden centers to corporate campuses. Some community apiaries are run by nonprofits such as Burgh Bees in Pittsburgh.
“It sort of started organically,” said Kyle Pattison, apiary director for Burgh Bees. “There was a need in the beekeeping community for a space, like a community garden for beekeepers.”
According to Pattinson, the past president of Burgh’s Bees worked extensively with the city of Pittsburgh to develop progressive urban agricultural legislation about four years ago. When Burgh Bees started in 2008, however, that was not the case.
“You had to give a notice to everyone on your street, and if one person said no, you had to shut down,” Pattison said.
Even if the legal environment is right, there can be other limitations to beekeeping in urban or suburban spaces. Though backyard beekeeping is permitted in Littleton and surrounding towns, Hudson Gardens & Event Center in Littleton, Colorado, started its community apiary in 2009 to provide a space for beekeepers facing other challenges.
“Some people have townhomes, where they don’t have a yard or don’t have physical space to keep a hive,” said Melanie Feddersen, development manager at the Hudson Gardens & Event Center. “The Homeowners Association could also prevent them from having one.”
How to join a community apiary
If you are lucky enough to have a community apiary near you, the best thing to do is to ask how to apply. Each community apiary has different rules and requirements to join.
At Burgh Bees, Pattison said it costs $75 a year to lease a space for hives, and the organization asks that beekeepers conduct 20 hours of volunteer service during the year.
“There are lots of work days in the large pollinator garden around the property, and we do a lot of outreach with schools and community organizations in the neighborhood,” Pattison said.
Hudson Gardens & Event Center requires community service in lieu of a lease fee. Whether beekeepers meet the community service requirements helps the organization decide which beekeepers they will readmit from year to year.
“Our beekeepers do have a certain number of outreach requirements that they’re required to fill,” Feddersen said. “If they meet them, it plays well to be re-accepted. We really want to invite people into the program who have education as one of their objectives. ”
New beekeepers also usually have to take a training course before they can start at the apiary. Fedderson said that new beekeepers are required to take Hudson Gardens’s comprehensive beekeeping class series to be a part of the community apiary. According to Pattison, Burgh Bees requests that new beekeepers take a class as well, but they can take the class anywhere as long as they show proof of completion.
The benefit of community apiaries
Community apiaries gives beekeepers an opportunity to give back with their passion by educating the public about pollinators.
“Education was always a part of it from the beginning,” Fedderson said. “As a public garden, we felt that we were in a unique position to use our garden and our facilities to highlight the importance of honeybees and pollinators.”
Community apiaries are also great for cultivating a love of beekeeping with new beekeepers. Having a mix of new and seasoned beekeepers also helps promotes skillsharing and builds a community around beekeeping.
“I would say the biggest advantage to having a community apiary is getting people comfortable with getting their feet wet with beekeeping,” Pattison said. “It’s nice having people around you who have done it before somebody hands you a box of 10,000 bees.”
Some community apiaries are focused specifically on such mentorship.
“Beekeeping can be a little bit of an intimidating experience, and new beekeepers can have a one-on-one opportunity to ask questions of experienced beekeepers,” Feddersen said.
The community apiary can also help connect new beekeepers to the right equipment.
“We offer a lot of years of knowledge to help beekeepers find a reliable source of bees when they get started,” Pattison said.
The challenges of managing a community apiary
Despite the advantages, there are some logistical challenges to managing a community apiary.
“We’ve found that approaching pest management and disease is becoming more of an issue as the apiary grows,” Fedderson said. “That’s probably the biggest challenge that we faced.”
While Hudson Gardens has a protocol for pest management in place, the hive density in the apiaries, Fedderson said, can promote mite infestation.
Community apiaries also need to make sure they have the proper legal protections in place.
“We do have liability insurance for our volunteers, including all beekeepers volunteers, so that kind of covers those liability concerns,” Fedderson said.
Then, there is the matter of keeping the public — and the bees — safe.
“We have taken some precautions,” Fedderson said. “We have a split rail fence and interpretive signage to alert to the presence of honeybees. We also maintain the hives in a manner that is not promoting aggression.”
Feddersen said that during the decade the Hudson Gardens community apiary has been running they have not run into legal issues.
The future of community apiairies
Community apiaries are still only sparingly available across the country, but Pattison and Feddersen agree that there is great potential to start more if a few key considerations are kept in mind.
“We really started with local ordinances to make sure what we were doing was fitting within those guidelines,” Feddersen said. “That’s clearly a logical starting point.”
“Progressive urban agriculture policy helps,” Pattison said.
Even without bee-friendly legislation, a strong and passionate community of beekeeping enthusiasts can get the project started
“You need a group around you,” Pattison said. “We rely very heavily on people’s passion for beekeeping.”
Fedderson said it is also important to clearly outline the expectations for both the beekeepers and the venue.
“From day one, we had a protocol in place that outlined access and basic management expectations,” she said. “Having a written document in place that provide guidelines and expectations for the beekeepers was important for us.”
Pattison is optimistic about the future of community apiaries, though.
“More and more people are interested in getting into bees,” Pattison said. “Every city and neighborhood could keep community apiary thriving.”