Urban Garden with Honeybees
DescriptionIn January 2014 Michelle interviewed her neighbor Kelly, a first-time beekeeper in Watertown, Massachusetts. The transcript of their conversation follows.
Michelle: Tell me a little bit about your garden?
Kelly: We have a pretty small urban garden. It is actually mostly flowers because I just love growing flowers. But, we also have a small (maybe 3-foot by 10-foot) vegetable garden and we have an area that is all perennial herbs as well.
Michelle: I understand that you have a cat. How did your cat get along with the bees, or having the bees in the yard?
Kelly: That was really interesting. Our cat usually likes to chase down other insects, but she was not bothered by these bees at all. She didn't try to get them and eat them, and would actually lie down at the foot of the hive while they were buzzing around her head. I don’t know. She seemed to really like them.
Michelle: Tell us a little bit about how your hive was constructed.
Kelly: When you first get the hive, it is one single tray. Over the course of the summer, they expand it as the little bee babies are born and as they make honey. We used to call it the condo. They would get a new level to the condo. We ended up having a fascination and love for them. We were very excited one morning when we woke up. We used to check on them every single morning. One morning we came down and they had formed a heart, almost a perfect heart on the outside of the hive, which we, of course, took as a sign that they loved us too.
Michelle: Of course.
Kelly: When the hive gets really hot, they tend to make what they call a beard on the outside of the hive and ours just happened to be in the shape of a heart.
Michelle: We'll have to get a picture of that posted with the story.
Michelle: What made you decide to get bees?
Kelly: A friend of mine recommended a TED Talk given by a guy who is a bee researcher named Noah [Wilson-Rich] in Boston and he was talking about the plight of the bees⎯how they're dying off. They don't really know what is causing it and was really encouraging people in any city to raise bees. He was talking about how easy it actually is and how it isn’t invasive. I had actually wanted chickens for years in my little urban garden but my husband was not keen on that so I brought up bees. I think he thought that might be much better than chickens. So, we called up the guy who did the TED Talk and he came to our house. We decided to go for it.
Michelle: So did you learn about the bees and take care of them yourself or did you have someone help you? How did that work?
Kelly: We did not. We are kind of in the process of learning about them. Basically, Best Bees is the company that provides the bees for us. They come and they set up your hive for you, fill it with bees, and then offer a service to maintain it for you. And, basically they come and check the bees periodically over the whole course of the year. They extract the honey, if you get honey, and send you updates on how your bees are doing. Often, we are there when they actually come. Not always, but they are happy to teach you when they are there and talk to you about it. Our goal was really, in this first year, to take a beekeeping class and learn to do it ourselves. That hasn't happened though. So we will probably keep them [Best Bees] for at least another year to help us with the bees.
Michelle: And when did you start with the bees?
Kelly: We got our bees in March of last year (2013). My understanding is that, when you set up a hive, if they are providing bees for you, it usually happens in the spring. We had contacted them in either January or February so we got one of the first, the earlier, shipments of bees, which I think was in early March and then our first honey came probably in mid-summer. So that was very exciting.
Kelly: There is no guarantee that you will get honey at all so…
Michelle: What factors contribute to how much honey you may or may not get?
Kelly: I don't really know all the factors but I think how much pollen there is... They said if you want to be guaranteed honey that having multiple hives is really the way to go. Our hive ended up being pretty productive. We were told that it was one of the most productive hives that they were servicing so we lucked out.
Michelle: What crops do you think the bees were feeding on or pollinating?
Kelly: They give you a list of plants that the bees really like and one thing they really love is fruit. We already were growing strawberries and I don't know if it a coincidence or not, but our strawberries were just incredible last summer. We got ten times what we normally get for strawberries and so that was really exciting. We also planted blueberry bushes for them. And we have some of the flowers that they really like as well. We have lavender growing in our yard. We set up our hive right next to our vegetable garden. We also got a lot of cherry tomatoes–way more, just a bumper crop of those. We think they enjoyed all those things, but I am not positive. They also fly to our neighbors. There are a lot of community gardens. A lot of homes have gardens in our area so we think that they helped out other people too.
Michelle: You said that your bees were really productive. Have you tasted the honey that they produced?
Kelly: Oh yeah, we have eaten it. We all love honey so. Everybody in my family loves honey. In fact, I had it on my toast this morning. But it’s good. The first harvest was lighter in color than the second harvest of honey that we got and it has a really mild floral taste to it and then the second harvest was a more golden color.
Michelle: At any time, did you feel that the bees were a nuisance to you?
Kelly: No. I have a daughter who is seven and some of her friends were…actually, it was it was more her friends' parents were nervous about their kids being around. They thought their kids would be really afraid of the bees, but no kids that came over seemed concerned at all. The bees really did not bother us at all. They were really active and they fly around a lot especially when it is hot. They are really determined to get back to the hive so they will crash into you. But, as far as we know, nobody got stung. Nobody in my family got stung. They don’t bother our pets. They are really just fascinating to watch. They are really busy. They are really active.
Michelle: And what type of bees are they?
Kelly: They are Italian honeybees. My understanding is that the reason Best Bees uses Italian honeybees is that they are not aggressive bees. They are known for really not stinging people unless they feel threatened.
Michelle: How did your daughter like having bees in the yard?
Kelly: She loved it. We could also see our hive from our dining room and we eat in there all the time so I think we were all pretty amazed at how much we watched them. Every morning we would look out the window to check on the hive. We would check them after school and work. We were curious as to when they would actually emerge. They usually come out when it starts to get warm so at different times of the year that’s earlier than others. They really became a huge presence in our life.
Michelle: What future do you have with bees?
Kelly: Sadly, our entire colony of bees died sometime in November, which really made us sad. We were so attached to them at that point and they were doing so well that it was really a shock. They had had a lot of baby bees over the summer, between March and the fall. The hive had grown to three different chambers and the entire middle chamber had been baby bees. We are not actually sure of what killed them but there were some indications that there were mites, but we're not positive. Our whole first colony is gone so we are getting a new shipment of bees in March.
Michelle: Well, are they going to study your bees and find out what happened?
Kelly: I know Noah's bees also died. I am curious to see how many other peoples’ bees have died over the course of this winter. I know that last winter something like two-thirds of the bees in the country died so we don't know what the cause is of ours.
Michelle: Well it sounds like keeping bees isn't too difficult in an urban or suburban environment.
Kelly: No, it is really easy and, in fact, you don't even need a yard. You need very little space. Our goal is to actually start taking over the care of the bees and I think that we would like to get more hives because it has been just a fun family project.
Michelle: Great. Well, it has been nice speaking with you about your bees and I look forward to hearing more about them in the future.
Kelly: I will have to give you some honey.
Michelle: Thank you. That would be great.
Listen to the audio clips to hear Kelly's story in her own words.