Don’t get bees unless you have a suitable place to put them. Here we will start by looking at some of the bees’ preferences, and then look at a few other important factors. Thinking through these things ahead of time can go a long way toward making things easier for both bees and beekeeper.
What do the bees prefer?
Dr. Tom Seeley studied the decision-making process of bees as they chose new nesting locations. This is a permanent decision for a colony, and critical to their survival. They cannot afford to make a poor decision. Dr. Seeley found that bees did indeed have definite preferences, and showed an amazing ability to consistently choose the very best option available!
You can read more about his research here: Passino_Seeley_2005_nest_site_analysis
Here are a few other things about the kind of environment bees prefer:
- Elevation off the ground – ideally about 15 feet above ground level.
- Unobstructed entrance – a highly visible location without brush or obstructions.
- Temperature moderation – on a treeless island, the bees preferred shaded locations.
We can use this information when deciding where to locate our beehives. We’ll talk more about the bees’ preferences regarding the qualities of the cavity itself when we talk about hive designs later.
Obviously it is not always practical to locate your hives in just the right amount of sun and shade, or 15 feet off the ground! In a normal hive box, with plenty of food and freedom from pests, a colony can thrive in almost any situation. However, here are some worthwhile points to consider:
- Elevation: One rule of thumb is to think “high and dry” when considering where to put your bees. In moist temperate climates, look for places where the snow melts first and the ground dries out quickly. Generally, in the northern hemisphere this means south-facing slopes. You do not want the hives sitting in frost pockets or damp foggy valleys where fungi thrive and the snow sticks around – or worse, where flooding may occur.
In warm dry climates shade may be an important asset. A southern exposure allows the early morning sun to shine into the hive entrance and warm the hive after cool nights, encouraging the colony to become active and start foraging earlier each day.
- A hive stand helps keep your hives out of the damp, fungi-laden soil. Your bottom board is an expensive piece of equipment. By keeping the entrance of the hive 12 to 16 inches off the ground in the front, you will also provide numerous benefits for the bees. We will cover these and various hive stand ideas in more detail when we get to the topic of preparing for your bees. Some people have kept their hives on rooftops, on patios, or even in barn windows.
- Another benefit to keeping your hives where the ground slopes away from the entrance is that it helps the bees keep the hive clean. You will notice when you get your bees that they like to keep their nest free of debris, and when they take something out of the hive they like to fly away with it and drop it a distance from the hive. This is a valuable sanitation measure, because the material they remove sometimes contains spores of infectious diseases.
This cleaning job is not easy for the bees. The objects they drag out of the hive are sometimes so heavy that the bees cannot lift them vertically – the best they can do is fly out of the entrance in a horizontal (or even a downward-angled) direction.
Having the entrance elevated off the ground, the entrance unobstructed, and the ground sloping away helps them to eliminate waste without getting tangled up in grass or brush. Dropping the debris close to the hive entrance might allow disease spores to be blown or tracked back into the hive.
- Unobstructed Entrance: Locate your bee yard where you can keep growth of weeds and brush under control. Don’t make your bees fight through it every time they enter and exit the hive. As mentioned above, this also helps with colony sanitation.
The ability to move around easily in the bee yard is just as important for the beekeeper as it is for the bee. Fighting briers or tripping on stumps and clumps of grass can be very dangerous in a bee yard.
- Temperature Moderation (Thermoregulation): It is easy to see why in-hive temperature is very important for the bees – if it is too warm or too cool, the brood will die. Hence, honey bees are very effective at controlling hive temperature. However it takes energy for them to do this and it is an advantage if you are able to provide them with a good situation.
- The amount of shade you would want to provide will depend largely on your climate. Here in West Virginia I keep most of my hives in full sun and have never had them overheat or “abscond” (leave the hive). The hotter your climate, the more beneficial shade will become. One common recommendation for temperate areas is a deciduous tree on the west side of the apiary, to provide dappled afternoon shade in the hot summer while allowing maximum sun to shine through after the leaves have fallen in winter.
- Protection from strong winds is another part of thermoregulation. Any number of things can serve as windbreaks, whether the lay of the land, fences, hedges, a row of hay bales, or a building. Know the direction from which strong winds, especially winter winds, typically come from and try to situate your hives to mitigate the effect.
Other important location considerations:
- Bee Forage: Good nutrition is an essential foundation for every colony’s health. Harvesting honey depends on the bees ability to secure more food than they need for their own survival – ideally within a 1-mile radius of the hive. A landscape of pines, oaks, and grasses spells starvation for your bees, and spring flowers alone are not enough. Honey bees not only need a sequence of bloom from spring to fall, but in most cases also need more than one source of pollen at a time in order to get a proper balance of protein.
We will learn more about which plants are beneficial to bees when we cover the yearly cycle. Not all flowers are of use to bees, but if there is a high level of diversity, chances are you will be okay. A flower bed in front of your house is inconsequential to honey bees; they need acres of bloom.
- Honey bees also need a safe and reliable source of fresh water nearby, year-round. Bees use a moist surface to take water from, or very shallow water with plenty of objects to land on. Some ways to provide water for your bees will be covered under the topic of feeding.
- Beekeeper Access: This is one of the of the most important considerations. A suitable location for the beekeeper is just as important as a suitable location for the bees, and there is no sense in making beekeeping more difficult than it needs to be. Ideally you should be able to drive a truck, trailer, or other vehicle right up beside your hives. If you only have a few hives, a wheel borrow might suffice. You don’t want to have to climb steps or hike up a mountain while carrying heavy equipment.
- Consider all seasons. Will you be able to get to your hives reliably in winter?
- Out of sight, out of mind. Locate your bees where you can see them and be reminded of them often.
- Human and Animal Safety: As stated before, you need to locate your bees where they will not be a menace or create a safety hazard. Your hives should be at least 50 feet from tethered or otherwise restrained animals, and not where their excretions will deface houses or automobiles. A quiet, low-traffic area will be better for both bees and people.
- Protection from Bears: If you have bears in your region, you will want to protect your hives with electric fence before your investment gets torn to pieces. If you have a farm or orchard, you may already have a fenced area suitable for your bees. Consider making the fenced area large enough to accommodate your vehicle as well as the hives.
- Livestock: Bees may be kept in company with chickens. Bees can be kept in a cattle pasture with rare incident (i.e. scratching against a hive). You may need to separate sheep or goats due to their tendency to climb or butt. It is recommended to keep bees at least 50 feet from a horse pasture. Serious bee-horse incidents can occur after years of peaceful coexistence. Dogs will learn a safe distance to keep.
- Pesticide Applications: Right-of-ways and agricultural fields are often targets of pesticide applications. Know the local practices before you put your bees within “wind-drift” of these areas. Commercial corn and soybeans generally make poor bee forage.
- Remote Locations: It is not always possible to locate your hives at home, but extra dedication will be required to keep up with them if they are located remotely. Negligence is not an option. Be sure to account for extra fuel and time costs for the travel involved.
If they will be located on property belonging to someone else, you will obviously need permission and a good relationship with the landowner, and the ability to access the bees at all times. Be aware of hunting practices and who else has access to the land. Also, find out if there are any other beekeepers in the area. If the land’s carrying capacity is already full, your bees will not do well.
- Hive Theft: If possible, locate hives out of sight of roadways, and within sight of a trusted residence. Not all beekeepers, regrettably, are good people, and the value of hives has increased significantly. Make it difficult for thieves to steal your hives, and find ways to monitor activity around your hives while you are not there.
So, do you have a suitable location? If there are things you need to look into regarding a location for your bees, jot them down now before moving to the next lesson.