When you drive into the countryside, you often see hives placed in fields, or beside the road. By themselves, or in a cluster, these hives seem perfectly suited to their location.
In urban settings, there are no wide open fields. Hives can’t be placed in forest clearings to catch the honey flow. There is no space to use mechanical aids to lift or move hives.
In many ways, however, urban areas are ideal for bees. There is a constant supply of flowering plants — even during dry times — thanks to the constant watering of household gardens.
Urban hives often prosper, and many inner-city residents are delighted to see more bees in their area.
The challenge remains to put the hives in a practical location, working within constraints and limitations. This post starts with a few guiding principles, and then outlines a checklist of factors to consider.
Use these to assess potential locations for your hive(s), to make your life — and your neighbours! — easier.
- it must be safe to work on the hive
- there must be sufficient space to work efficiently
- the hive will prosper in its environment
- problems with neighbours or other locals will be avoided
❏ It’s possible to get a full, heavy hive in and out of the location (on a trolley for example)
❏ Ideally the hive can be accessed without going through the house (beekeeping is a sticky hobby!)
❏ Ideally, the hive is placed on a flat surface (level ground, or a flat roof)
❏ There’s a solid foundation or platform for the hive to sit on (hives can get heavy!)
❏ The hive won’t flood during heavy rain, or have its foundation eroded away
❏ No tenancy rules are broken (for example, a hive may not be allowed on a balcony of a block of flats)
❏ House lights don’t shine on the hive at night (otherwise bees will fly in through open windows and doors)
❏ Windows and doors overlooking the hive entrance should be protected by flyscreen, wherever possible
❏ The hives isn’t adjacent to any sensitive locations (such as a childcare centre next door, busy dog park, etc)
❏ The neighbours have been told about the hive and are happy for it to be there (promises of free honey often help!)
Access and working area
❏ There is at least 9 square m of working space around the hive (3m x 3m)
❏ The space around the hive is solid and easy to work on (ie no bushes, loose rocks, slippery surfaces)
❏ There is space to stand and work behind the hive (the safest location)
❏ It’s possible to get a hive lifter (or other necessary equipment) behind the hive
❏ There should be sufficient space for 3 people to work on the hive (one owner, and two helpers or novices)
❏ There are clear escape routes if — heaven forbid! — something goes wrong, and you are faced with a hive of very angry bees
❏ There’s no height restriction (a particular consideration for Warre hives, which can get very tall)
❏ Ideally, the entrance to the hive should face East (although the bees seem to cope fine if this isn’t the case)
❏ There must be a clear flight line in front of the hive, of at least 3m
❏ Any fences in the flight line must be far enough away, or low enough, not to impede the movement of the bees
❏ In cold areas, the hive should receive winter sun
❏ In hot areas, the hive should be protected from the full summer sun
❏ Ideally, it should be easy to monitor the hive entrance throughout the year (eg a sight line from the balcony, deck, window, etc)
❏ Hives should ideally have a relatively placid temperament, to avoid the situation of angry bees attacking the neighbours
❏ There should be a reasonable number of hives in the location, so as not to cause nuisance or safety issues
Bending the rules
In urban areas, hive owners face many practical constraints. The balcony might be quite small, or the back yard heavily sloping. The courtyard may be flat and sunny, but surrounded by high walls. Plantings may impede the working area around the hive.
Rules can be bent or even broken, but with care and due consideration. Every compromise must be understood, and always go back to the guiding principles.
Safety must always be a prime consideration, not just for the apiarist but for neighbours and visitors.
Three of my hives are on the roof of our house, for example. This has restricted access (ladder required!), but there is 100sq m of flat roof to work on. This would not have been my first choice, but our backyard was too small for hives. Having implemented a few safety improvements, this location is entirely workable.
If you really don’t have a good location for bees, don’t despair! Many people would love to have bees in their gardens, and be a host for your hive. The general rule is that the honey harvests are split 50/50, but that still leaves plenty for everyone. More importantly, it allows you to be a true beekeeper, and to benefit from an amazing experience.
This is like the “food forest” concept described in permaculture, but on steroids.
The overarching idea is to create a forest-like ecosystem, but with as many of the niches filled with food-producing plants. For example, this could consist of a:
- canopy of fruit or nut trees
- a middle layer of food-producing bushes (rainforest plants should be a good fit)
- ground layer of supporting plants, adding nutrients or attracting beneficial bugs
Contrast this to a typical orchard: the trees are carefully spaced to maximise production, but underneath there’s nothing but grass that needs to be constantly mowed. The trees themselves need constant feeding and management.
The orchard produces the most fruit, but only the fruit. The edible forest garden has more competition between plants, so the canopy produces less. But when you add up all the food produced at all the layers, it wins hands-down. Better yet, by mimicking a normal forest, only a little management is needed, and hopefully no maintenance.
Has this been done in Australia?
The original ideas come out of North America and the UK, and this is where most of the real-life examples come from. I’ve heard of a few small-scale gardens in Australia, but I suspect there’s not many in total.
So my goal is to fully explore this concept in temperate Australia, utilising native bushfoods and rainforest plants wherever possible.
The books are very heavy-weight, and the approach requires a huge amount of planning. It may be 6-12 months before even the first plant goes into the ground.
I’ll write up our journey as it progresses, starting with our goals for the edible forest garden, and then working steadily down into design details.
Give us 10-20 years, and voila, there should be an edible forest! Lucky for us it’s the journey we’re looking forward to 🙂
PS. the pair of Edible Forest Gardens books are excellent, and I’d highly recommend you get a copy if you want to take food forests to the next step…
Over the years, we’ve implemented an tremendous series of improvements to our house in Lewisham. We’ve been growing all our greens, collecting eggs from our chickens and harvesting honey from the beehives on our roof.
We’ve also guerrilla gardened our verge, the convent behind us and alongside the railway station.
But our ambitions haven’t stopped there, and I’m pleased to say that as of today, we’re now going to be farmers!
After much searching, we’ve purchased a 22ha (56acre) property in the hills overlooking Berry on the South coast.
The lovely two-story cottage sits on the side of a hill, with a backdrop of lush rainforest. Amongst the trees, there are six main fields which total about 4-5ha (8-10acres), with a rural zoning.
Fear not, we’re not leaving Lewisham! For the next while, this will be a weekender for us, with our main residence remaining in Sydney.
We have big plans for the property, however, with a 10-20 year permaculture project in the pipeline. More on this soon…
In the meantime, we’ll start shopping for a tractor, and a shed to put it in 🙂
(We get access to the property at the end of March.)
Earlier this year we had a glut of lemons, so I decided to make Limoncello as an experiment. I don’t remember where I found the recipe (it was many months ago when this experiment took place!) but it went something like this:
- 5 lemons
- 1 bottle of vodka
- 200g sugar
- Zest the lemons. Mix the lemon zest with the vodka.
- Add a little bit of lemon juice.
- Close the lid and store it for 2 weeks.
Two weeks later
- In a saucepan, dissolve the sugar over low heat in 160ml of water.
- When the syrup is cool, add it to the vodka.
- If you want to, you can strain the Limoncello to remove some or all of the lemon zest.
- Store for another 4 weeks to allow the flavours to mature (hence why I’m only drinking it now!).
This limoncello is delizioso! It’s best served from the freezer and/or over ice, and a great way to use up some of your excess lemon crop.
At Lewisham House, we love growing citrus. But it’s a hungry crop, and high maintenance.
Now one of the core concepts in permaculture is that of a “guild”. The idea is that instead of just planting a tree by itself, you plant it with a community (a “guild”) of other plants, which provide supporting services. This might include extra nutrients, attractants for beneficial bugs, and the like.
If you search the net, you’ll find plenty of diagrams for apple tree guilds, hazelnut guilds, and other northern hemisphere deciduous trees. But not for citrus trees (that I could find).
So I did a fair bit of reading and thinking, and these are my draft citrus guilds, for Australian warm temperate conditions. All feedback welcome!
- Citrus trees are gross feeders. So the guild has to produce a lot of nitrogen, and other fertilisers, to support the citrus.
- Design for full-sized and dwarf trees. Dwarfed citrus trees are widely available, and can be very useful in a permaculture context.
- Minimal maintenance. Ideally, once setup, the guild runs itself.
- Plants have to be available in Australia. There are plenty of great permaculture plants (like goumi), which I just can’t find in Oz.
- Australian natives wherever possible. Rainforest plants are particularly useful, as they’re acclimatised to shade and competition.
- Warm temperate or sub-tropical. Some of the species I’ve chosen would likely struggle in colder conditions.
Citrus guild (full-sized trees; version 1.0)
Citrus guild (dwarf trees; version 1.0)
Notes and questions
- I’ve packed in as many nitrogen-fixing species that I can, with a mix of native and introduced species.
- Acacia (wattle) are great nitrogen-fixers, and they thrive in most conditions. But the big question from what I’ve read is: do acacias release that nitrogen into the soil for the benefit of other trees, or just keep it for themselves. An answer please! (I’ve done a lot of looking, and I’m still uncertain.)
- A linear arrangement is just one possibility, and it happened to match some other design work that I was doing at the time.
- Does this guild work in practice? I’m just starting to experiment in the real world, so all feedback and suggestions welcome.
- Have I missed any good plants that can serve a productive purpose in the guild? Again, all suggestions encouraged.
- Are there other citrus guild drawings that I’ve missed? Please post links in the comments below.
Back in 2014, I started planting alongside the pedestrian pathway that runs from Lewisham Station through to West St. There have been ups and downs, but I’m now up to 30 metres of garden, with a mix of small trees, bushes and ground covers (all natives).
And then I paused, as I’d been reported to the council for planting trees (shock horror!).
I ended up having a visit from the tree officer at Inner West Council, who turned out to be delightful. Not only did he approve of the work (his first question was: “are you going to do the rest?”), but he offered some free trees.
A month or so later, the council planted eight Lilly Pillies, plus a variety of other trees. This has doubled the length of the garden, to approximately 60 metres. Which is about half of the entire length of the passageway. Now we’re getting there!
I offered to mulch under the council trees, so I collected free cardboard boxes from the recycling bins at Pig and Pastry, plus free mulch from the Council. Two full ute loads of mulch later, I’m only half way. Phew! Still it’s good exercise, and there’s a palpable sense of progress now.
I’ll be at this for a few years yet, so say hi if you see me working away. And any volunteer help would be gratefully received!
We’ve had a week of warm weather in Sydney, and this has kicked off “swarm season”. This is where happy hives all across Sydney decide it’s time to divide into two: one group staying in the hive, and the second group off to find a new home.
I’ve already caught two swarms, one in Camperdown, the other in Rozelle. Both are fairly big, so they’re likely to be “prime swarms”, the first (and largest) swarm from each hive.
Both swarms are now happily in hives, temporarily sitting in our front garden. Later this week, they’ll be heading down to Kangaroo Valley, to some eco friends of ours who live in the middle of a jungle. Lucky bees!