I have my bees at ‘out-apiaries’ and have never risked keeping them at home. That’s a personal choice which works for me (and my neighbours) but I have far more hives than could ever fit in my garden anyway. I have recently grown my beekeeping empire, bringing my number of apiaries up to seven. So, I thought I’d write about creating a lovely new apiary.
This is where we get that good old clash between dreams and reality. I can list what, I think, makes a perfect apiary site, but ultimately, I tend to take what I can get. The most critical thing, the one that means I will say “no” to a potential site for my bees, is access. At some point, I’m going to have to haul heavy honey boxes off my hives and transport them to my extracting room. If I can’t get my van close to the hives, that’s a lot of serious hard work. Each super can hold 40lbs of honey, and with the weight of the box and frames, it’s a lot. It doesn’t seem a lot at first, but if you have to carry supers manually for more than 10–15 metres, it gets pretty knackering. So, 50 metres across a field is a bad idea.
The other thing about ‘access’ is the terrain over which you must drive. What looks great in the summer sun can turn out to be a wheel swallowing quagmire in the autumn rains. My rule is, if I can’t drive my van close to the bees at all times throughout the year, then I’m not interested. Then I go and break my rule, but hopefully not often.
Finding Apiary Sites
I have found that as I become more well known, it has become easier to find places for bees because people regularly ask me if I want to keep them on their land. My preferred sites are on farms, as long as the access is good. I remember talking to Richard Noel about finding sites, and he told me about how he spends hours looking at Google Earth trying to find good places. Murray McGregor is always site-hunting too, as I’m sure most bee farmers are. It’s quite exciting when you find somewhere suitable and the owner says yes to bees, but only if you are not encroaching on another beekeepers turf.
A sneaky thing to do is ask if people mind if you place a swarm trap (bait hive) on their land. This often stimulates their interest and is part of a gradual softening up process which eventually leads to them wanting bees. Might not work, but you never know.
My approach is to use maps, especially satellite images, to locate promising places. I also drive around looking over hedges and seeing what crops are grown in different places. In my early days, I sent out letters and emails to farmers in the areas where I wanted bees. Most people never reply, but every now and then you get somebody who would love to have bees on their farm. They might even build a fence to go around the hives, to protect them from cattle. One farmer built me a shed for my beekeeping stuff, right next to the hives. There are some generous folk out there.
This is a typical list of things that make a good apiary site:
- good access, ability to get a vehicle close to the bees
- south facing
- near to a source of water (streams, ponds) but not in a place prone to flooding
- sheltered from winds, by hedgerows for example
- not very near to paths or roads which bring the public in proximity to the bees. Not near to anywhere that people live or congregate (50+ metres away)
- hard to see; otherwise you may attract vandals or thieves
- good forage available through most of the season, including early pollen (willows) and plenty of trees, hedges and maybe fields that are occasionally sown with oilseed rape, field beans, mustard, or borage. I like places that are near to Himalayan balsam for later in the season.
- away from dips in the land that get cold and damp
- probably not too near to horses (I believe they can get spooked)
- not right next to another person’s apiary; it’s bad manners
It’s easy enough to create wind-breaks or shelters using fencing or bails of hay. I don’t like places that are very windy, but some places are, and you have no choice. In my experience, high winds plus open mesh floors is a bad mix, but my experience is admittedly quite limited.
I find it really helpful to have a shed near to an apiary. It’s a place to stash some floors, boxes, roofs, nucs and so forth. One problem with having a small van is that you can’t carry loads of spare equipment with you. When hives need supers, or you have to do an artificial swarm, it’s good to have the kit nearby.
The relationship with landowners is critically important. I am quite anti-social, but have found that beekeeping has helped me to develop the ability to chat and laugh with others. I had no idea! It’s actually quite fun exchanging pleasantries with farmers about the way the season is progressing and so forth. I try to keep my landowners informed about what I’m doing, and they get plenty of honey. I also try, not always successfully, to keep the sites neat and tidy. Oh, and I keep nice bees – that’s an essential one, as nobody wants to be hassled by stinging insects.
My strategy is to make up nucleus colonies and move them to the new apiary, then promote them into full-sized hives a bit later on. Occasionally, the nuc is placed there in the autumn so that it is ready to roll in the spring. Other times, I set them up in spring, which means I need to use over wintered queens or, dare I say it, bought in queens? My goal is always to take plenty of queens through winter in nucs.
The reason I move nucs is that I can easily fit several into my van. It’s simple enough to tape down the lids and block the entrances to avoid bees leaking out and buzzing around my head as I drive through the lanes of East Cheshire. When I get a bigger van or a trailer, I’ll be able to move full-sized hives, which is actually more useful when it comes to taking them to crops (OSR, borage, heather). That’s the second mention of borage, but I’ve never seen it in my area, sadly. One day…
We have used pallets, tyres, and all sorts of things as hive stands, but lately, we have started to use homemade stands as shown in the video above. The four legs are scaffold base jacks (zinc plated), the wood cross pieces are kiln dried Douglas fir (treated with wood preserver) and the hives sit on two galvanised steel tubes. They should be able to support honey laden hives and not rot. Not great for migratory beekeeping, but perfect for permanent sites.
Season So Far
Finally, on a walk today I saw hawthorn, oak and horse chestnut in flower. It’s not even May yet, and it’s been quite a cool spring. Oilseed rape has been in full flower for a while now, apple blossom is out and cherries are nearly finished. The first spectacular surge of dandelions (they were everywhere) is over, and their seed heads rock in the breeze. It all seems very early. Many hives have two supers, so hopefully the honey is coming in. I expect swarming to kick off when the sun appears, which must be soon, surely?