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Setting Up Bee Yards

By: Blake Shook

It’s the time of year new beekeepers need to be thinking about setting up their bee yards. In some instances, some relatively intense work can be involved in preparing the space. Notice I didn’t say “hard” work… Human nature tends to cause us to overthink a project, but truthfully, this is one that just some plain ol’ common sense can be your best tool. Here are some tips to help you in the process.

How close together can I place my hives?

Simply put, as close as you'd like. I recommend placing hives at a comfortable working distance apart. That is usually about 3-5 feet. This allows you to easily get between hives to work them. From the bees’ standpoint, they can be a few inches apart, and operate perfectly fine. Commercially, beekeepers put 4 beehives on a pallet where each hive is only a few inches apart and it does not cause any major issues.

Mowing and maintaining your bee yard

Mowing and edging around beehives is not always easy! Bees hate the noise and vibration of either and will quickly become agitated. I recommend mowing and edging in the late evening, right before dark when the bees are much less likely to fly. Put your bee suits on just in case you bump the hive, or they become more agitated than expected, smoke the hives, then mow & edge as quickly as possible. It also helps to put some form of weed barrier under & around each hive so you don’t have to edge right up against each hive. If you use some form of weed killer (ideally natural weed killer) around the hives, ensure it does not get into the hives. Apply it at night, so it can dry all night and the bees won’t come in contact with it the next day.

How should I arrange hives in my bee yard?

There are endless configurations when it comes to laying out hives in each location. In general, the more random the pattern, the more easily bees will find their individual hives. A perfectly spaced, straight line of uniform white boxes looks great, but is more difficult for the bees to find. That being said, if you only have 5 or less hives, you can still do that without causing issues. Bees are pretty good at finding home, but if all homes are identical, it can be a bit more challenging for them. If you have many hives, try a horseshoe pattern, or paint each hive, or each lid a different color; or place some objects in the bee yard so they can orient themselves more easily. It also works to paint a different shape or symbol on the lower brood box. If you are like me, you aren’t much of an artist, you can place hives along a tree line. Positioned correctly this can provide afternoon shade in the heat of the summer and allow bees to easily find their hive due to the variations in the tree line.

Bees and Neighbors

Whether you are in a suburban neighborhood or in a rural area, bees can cause an issue when it comes to neighbors. Here are some key factors and tips when it comes to bees & neighbors:

  • A common phrase in beekeeping is “out of sight, out of mind.” We work hard to hide our hives. Typically, if your hives are readily visible, it can cause issues. Put them behind a privacy fence, behind some trees, etc.
  • If you have neighbors nearby, work to ensure your bees remain gentle. Use plenty of smoke, don’t work them in poor weather, mow right before dark, and only use gentle breeds.
  • If your bees do become defensive as you work them, stop, smoke them heavily, and try a different day. If they are continually aggressive, move them or requeen.
  • If your neighbors are complaining about your bees, be sure to ask what the issue is. Often it is that they say they are allergic to bees, and don’t like them on their flowering plants and bushes. Let them know that there are dozens of wild hives that forage on the same plants and you moving your bees won’t help. They can cut down their flowering plants if they don’t want bees around their home.
  • Educate your neighbors. A jar of honey goes a very long way. Teach them about bees, offer to suit them up and show them how gentle your bees are, and give them some honey. That will solve many issues!
  • Let the neighbor talk to another experienced beekeeper you trust. Sometimes a “neutral” third expert can help calm things down.
  • Ultimately, if neighbors continually complain, I usually end up moving my bees to a different location on my property, or in the case of a small backyard, move them somewhere out in a rural area.

Providing a water source

In summer months, bees need water to help keep the hive cool. If you are in a rural area, just ensure there is a stream, pond or lake ¼-½ a mile away. If so, your bees should be just fine. If there is not, or if you are in a residential area, it is ideal to provide them with a water source. This is to ensure they have water and discourage them from bothering neighbors. A water faucet dripping into a bucket of gravel works great! Chicken waterers work well, as does any container with plenty of flotation options to keep the bees from drowning. The water doesn’t have to be clean and fresh...bees actually prefer old and dirty water! Make sure it doesn’t run out, even for a day, as that will cause the bees to switch to an alternate source, which may be your neighbor's swimming pool. Also make sure the water is in the shade, as bees don’t like hot water in full sun. To attract bees to a new water source, you can try baiting them with some sugar syrup mixed with essential oils right next to the water source.

Bees in my neighbor's pool

 It is very difficult to prevent or stop bees from drinking from a swimming pool. They actually like the chlorine, and once they have begun sourcing water from one location, they typically stick with it until it dries up. If you are in an urban area, or have neighbors with pools, it is important to proactively give your bees a water source beginning in the late spring. If that isn’t working, and your bees are still in your neighbor's pool, you have a few options. One, they could just as easily be wild bees as your bees. There is no guarantee that if you were to move your bees, your neighbors won’t continue having problems. Bees don’t like agitated water, so if there is a practical way to agitate the water in the pool for a few days, while providing an alternate waters source for your bees, it may help. Some also say peppermint oil applied around the edge of a pool helps deter bees as well. All that being said, there does not seem to be a foolproof way to stop them, unfortunately.

Livestock and Bees

Luckily, bees and livestock tend to coexist quite well. Most livestock leave hives alone. The key with any livestock is to make sure they can get away from the bees if the bees become agitated. Having livestock trapped in a small area with the bees is not ideal. Other than that, a small fence around your hives is a good idea to keep them from accidentally tipping over a hive or getting stung, but it's not critical. Commercially, the majority of our bee yards also have some form of livestock in them, and we’ve never had an issue.

Pets and Bees

 If you are keeping bees in your yard, it is important to ensure any pets can get away from bees if the bees become angry. Pets typically learn to respect hives quickly and stay away from them. Make sure never to cage pets near bees. It is rare for dogs and cats to be highly allergic to bees, and most pets have already been stung whether or not you have bees if they spend much time outdoors.

Meet Blake Shook

How many hives can I put in 1 location?

This largely depends on if you are in a rural area or highly populated area, and what the forage is like in the few miles around your hives. If you are in a rural area, then there are few restrictions on how many hives you can have in one location other than the forage available. In suburban areas, 10-15 is often the most you can have, depending on if HOA's get involved or not, and assuming you use gentle breeds like Italian or Cordovans. From the bee’s perspective, it’s all about the forage in the area. Some locations with ample forage can have hundreds of hives in one bee yard. Most regions in the USA max at 15-30 hives per location due to a lack of available forage for yielding a surplus honey crop. If you are simply growing bees, or overwintering hives, and are not trying to make a honey crop, most areas can support 50-200 per location.

The best way to determine the number for your local area is to start with 10-15 and increase it each year until it begins to affect your honey crop. The faster, and probably more efficient way is to ask long time local beekeepers. They will be able to tell you how many hives you can have per bee yard before it will impact your honey crop. For some regions that’s 10. For others, it’s 200. But the areas where it is 10 is far more common than areas where it is 200.

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