Field Guide to Beekeeping
Choosing the Right Location for Your Apiary
An apiary is an assembly of one or more bee hives at a single location. I once believed that you could establish apiaries anywhere and that the bees would thrive and make honey by the bucket. Boy, was I wrong. I grew up in central Georgia and had only one apiary site during my early years. My grandfather was a dairy farmer and he was gracious enough to allow me to keep my bees on his farm. The site was great. I enjoyed many years of keeping bees and making honey. The apiary location was good for the bees, but it significantly skewed my view of beekeeping. When I began to teach about bees and beekeeping, I would scoff at people who would tell me that their bees were not making honey at the apiary site they chose. I always believed that they had this problem because they did not know how to keep bees. After all, bees make honey everywhere.
Then, I moved to High Springs, Florida. I was told, before moving to the area, that it was a difficult place to keep bees. Local beekeepers told me that bees survive just fine in the area, but that they do not make honey. Of course, since I knew everything, I believed the people just did not know what they were doing. I would keep bees in High Springs my way, and sit back and watch the honey come in by the gallon.
I failed to make any honey the first year I kept bees in High Springs. Surely, that was an anomaly, an unlucky twist of fate. Of course, it happened again the second year. I began to question my tactics. By the third year, I was convinced that one could not make palatable, surplus honey in the city I now call home. I had learned an important lesson. Not all apiary sites are created equal.
This article is about choosing the right apiary site to locate your bees. The characteristics beekeepers look for in apiaries vary by how they intend to use the apiary. For example, staging yards (apiaries where colonies are put temporarily for purposes other than pollinating crops and/or making honey) can just be large fields and relatively void of good forage for the bees. On the other hand, you have to put bees close to nectar-rich plants if you want to make honey. Regardless, all “good” apiary sites share common characteristics one must value in order to maximize colony production and beekeeper enjoyment of the craft. Just like in real estate, all that matters when choosing apiary sites is location, location, location.
Before discussing some “apiary essentials,” I want to note that I realize that beekeepers, especially hobbyist beekeepers, often have little choice when picking a good apiary location. Sometimes, your only option is your only option. There is nowhere else to go. However, there are good pointers to remember even when your options are limited.
20 Characteristics of a Good Apiary Location
1) There must be copious, quality pollen and nectar sources nearby (Figure 1). Honey bees thrive when floral resources abound. However, a plant does not necessarily produce quality nectar and/or pollen just because it blooms. Have you ever had tulip honey? Even if a given plant produces a lot of nectar, there must be enough of the plants around in order for the bees to make honey. I often get the comment that “I have a citrus tree in my yard and I do not get any citrus honey”: of course not. Bees have to forage from numerous citrus trees in order to make citrus honey. The same is true of whatever nectar source your bees are pursuing.
One also should be careful to believe the distance rule of foraging behavior. We have all read in books that bees will fly two to five miles from the nest in search of nectar and pollen. Though this is true, do not expect a crop of sourwood honey if there are five acres of sourwood four miles from your apiary. The best apiary sites are those located as close as possible to the quality forage resources.
Furthermore, a potential apiary site may yield honey, but it may not be palatable. For example, my bees make a super of wild cherry in February and one of Spanish needle in September. Neither honey is palatable to most humans. There is nothing else in my area the rest of the year except pine and oak trees (Figure 2). Neither are known to yield nectar that bees can use to make honey. My bees are able to sustain themselves on the cherry and Spanish needle honey, but they do not produce a marketable crop for me.
My advice here is simple: check with other beekeepers in your area to determine if the area has a history of providing major nectar flows and quality pollen. I find beekeeper advice quite valuable in these instances. At the end of the day, however, there is no substitute for giving the area a try. You really will not know if nectar and pollen resources abound if you do not place colonies there for some years. My rule of thumb is that I will give an area three years with five to ten hives before I consider it a resource desert.
2) There should be a source of clean water near the colonies. Bees need water to survive. They are going to forage for water at the nearest quality source, which always seems to be exactly where you do not want them to forage. Consequently, a convenient source of water should be available to the bees at all times during the year so that the bees will not congregate at swimming pools, pet watering bowls (Figure 3), or other watering sources where they may contact humans, birds, or domestic pets. Some sources of water that beekeepers can provide include: (1) a tub of water with wood floats to prevent the bees from drowning, (2) a faucet in the apiary that is left to drip steadily, or (3) filling Boardman entrance feeders (quart jars with holes in the lids) with water and placing them in the colony entrance (Figure 4). If using tubs of water, the water should be changed periodically to avoid stagnation and mosquito breeding.
3) Apiaries should be established away from where people or animals frequent. Most people are scared of bees. Some are allergic to bees. Nothing will kill your beekeeping hobby quicker than neighbors who are upset at you for allowing your bees to drink water from their pool. Most beekeepers adopt the “out of sight, out of mind” policy with locating their hives at a suitable apiary site. For practical reasons, and to promote public safety and reduce beekeeping liability, one should not site apiaries in proximity to tethered or confined animals, students, the elderly, general public, drivers on public roadways, or visitors where animal/bee and people/bee interactions may have a higher likelihood of occurring.
4) Apiaries should not be visible to vandals. There are two reasons to “hide” apiaries from others. The first we addressed in point 3 when we noted that bees can be a public safety issue in some circumstances. The second reason is that bee colonies can be the target of vandals. Colonies and colony equipment are stolen regularly. It is a good idea to keep your colonies out of site.
5) Apiaries must be easily accessible. I have traveled all around the world and seen people keep bees in the hardest possible places to access. I have seen colonies on roofs, in narrow mountain passes, in the thickest imaginable bushes, etc. I take the completely opposite approach. Beekeepers should be able to get to their bees easily. The access road should be navigable and not be prone to flooding. Apiaries should not be located in bushes or on the edge of steep grades. Of course, one should not make it easy for others to find and access your apiary. Yet, you should be able to access your bees when needed. I feel that you should be able to drive a truck and trailer to your bees and have enough room to turn the vehicle around easily.
6) It is a good idea to have a written agreement when locating apiaries on other peoples’ property. Beekeepers often need to locate apiaries on property owned by others. Commercial beekeepers do this all the time. Many hobby beekeepers I know, especially those living in subdivisions, also have to ...