When you set out to keep bees, one of the first decisions you must make is where to put your hives. Often the choice is made casually, based on where you think it might be nice to have the hives, rather than on where it will be best for the bees to live.
Make no mistake, the decision of where to put your colonies is a momentous one for the bees inside. While honey bees are amazingly adaptable, you can make their lives markedly better with thoughtful choices. Careful siting will also make your own career as beekeeper easy or a constant struggle.
Even if you already have a bee yard, it will be useful to review all these factors to see if you can make an improvement with a small change. And fortunately for those who live in the freezing north, much of the site analysis can be done indoors at your computer.
From the bees' point of view, the most important site factors to consider are:
From the beekeeper's perspective, the important factors are:
To evaluate a site, start by locating it on a mapping site such as Google Earth. Draw a circle 2 miles in diameter around the site. Add another circle which is 4 miles in diameter. This will give you a bees' eye view of almost all the area your bees will inhabit.
Availability of plentiful forage over the whole season is critically important for the bees and for beekeepers who hope to make a honey crop. Obviously for bees, good forage is about how easy it is for them to make a living and keep their hive healthy and strong. Ideally, they will be able to provide for themselves entirely within the inner 2-mile diameter circle. But they will often fly beyond that to collect nectar from a more-abundant source than they could find close by. In severe climates, they will fly even further away, but at greater physical peril and energy cost which will have a negative, long-term impact on the colony.
How do you know if the site you are considering has good forage potential? Look at your map with the circles drawn on it. What kind of vegetation is within the circles? Is it primarily forests, cultivated crops, suburban yards, abandoned fields, orchards, or urban areas? (Don't discount urban areas; city bees, with much less competition, can do very well.) The ideal site will have a mix of mature deciduous trees (the ones that lose their leaves in the winter) and open areas made up of yards, weedy fields and unkempt hedgerows. A mixture of both trees and fields is important.
On the other hand, cultivated land, whether single-species pine plantations, corn and bean fields, or commercial orchards, is less productive because it lacks the broad range of plants and because agricultural practices may pose risks for bees.
Most sites have some undesirable forage. An imperfect site doesn't preclude having hives. But it may reduce the carrying capacity, meaning how many hives can be maintained without the need for too much beekeeper-supplied feeding. It may also be possible to improve the quality of the available bee pasture by planting trees, shrubs, and wild flowers.
The other important foraging factor, and one that is often overlooked, is access to water. Bees need readily available water: to keep themselves and their brood hydrated, to thin out thick honey, and especially, for cooling the hive during hot weather. Bees aren't particularly picky about their water. In fact, they seem to prefer slightly grubby water. The closer it is to the hive, the better, as that will save the bees' energy and shorten flight time when hauling it back. The water source should be a permanent one and not subject to drying up in the summer.
The next important factor in a good bee yard is sun exposure. Except in the hottest climates, a site with full sun all day is the best choice. This will get the bees up and working as soon as possible in the morning. And provide them with the most winter warmth, as well as help to reduce problems from some insect pests, such as small hive beetles. While shade may provide for more-comfortable beekeeping on hot days, it can also make seeing eggs and tiny larvae more difficult. If some shade is inevitable, then late afternoon shade in the summer is the best choice.
Keep in mind if you are evaluating a potential site in winter, that once the trees leaf out in the spring a site may be much shadier. And remember, too, that the sun's arc changes over the course of a year. The sun rises in a much more northeasterly direction in the warmest months compared to wintertime.
In general, it's better if the hives face south, or southeast. This will put sun on their doorsteps earlier in the day, and offer welcome warmth in the winter. You can use your cell phone to show you which way is south, if needed.
An excellent site for bees is at the edge of a tree line, facing south over an open area. From the bees' perspective this would likely be what they would choose for themselves.
The last environmental factors to consider when selecting a site are wind direction and the air drainage at ground level. Whether during a howling gale or the quiet of summer dawn, air movement is always an important characteristic of the site.
The most obvious part is wind or a breeze. Windy areas exact a toll on the colony by making flying more difficult and may also make the hives draftier. Windbreaks (tall plants or trees, buildings, or fences) that shelter the bee yard from prevailing winds will improve the lives of your bees.
The other aspect of a site with good air movement is more subtle. Whether in a hilly area, or on a flatter site, there are always changes in elevations relative to nearby areas. These differences in elevation are important because they create a ground-level air flow from high to low spots. The ideal location for a bee yard is at a mid-point where air can drain downward and away from the hives. This keeps the yard dryer and away from the cold, stagnant air at the bottom of a slope. At the same time, it avoids the exposed top of a hill which may be too windy. Even on seemingly flat sites, there may be areas that collect cool air. These can be seen on chilly mornings, or as the dew falls at twilight, because wisps of ground fog will form. Avoid those areas for your bees.
Thoughtful attention to all these bee-focused factors will help you choose the best site for your bee yard.
Easy access to a site is a very important factor, and it's often overlooked by new beekeepers. Close approach with a motorized vehicle is best. Over the course of a year, lots of equipment will come and go, and heavy boxes of honey may need to be carried away. If you can't get a vehicle close to the hives, at least make sure that you're carrying the heaviest loads downhill.
If your proposed bee yard is at your home, try to put it where it's easy and convenient to visit. A lot of the pleasure of keeping bees comes from being able to check on them at odd moments during your day. If your proposed location is one where you can see the hives from your house, that's a big plus because you can do a quick check without even putting on your boots.
The final category of site selection issues is the avoidance or mitigation of “problems.” These fall into separate groups: bee-problems, natural-problems, animal-problems, and people-problems.
The bee-problem relates to whether a prospective location is sharing a foraging range close to permanent or migratory bee yards. Your neighbor with a few hives in her garden is not a big factor. But if your site is close to a large permanent bee yard, you may have an increased need to provide supplemental feeding. And if your bees are near a large migratory yard, you will have more drifting when the bees are moved, and possibly a need to be more proactive about monitoring for pests and diseases.
Two natural problems that should be avoided are flood prone areas and places with higher-than-usual fire risk.
Animal-problems are chiefly about bears. As cute as Winnie-the-Pooh's affection for honey seems, real bears in a bee yard are a disaster. Fortunately, most bear problems can be avoided, or cured, with a sturdy electric fence, even at remote locations without power. Smaller animals such as skunks or raccoons can also be a problem; fencing may deter them too.
And then there are the people-problems. These can be the trickiest to resolve once difficulties arise. It's better to try and avoid them in the first place.
The first thing is to make sure bees are permitted in your location. Sometimes zoning laws or homeowners' association's covenants bar bees completely. In some cases, appeals or variances may offer some hope of having bees in the future.
Even where keeping bees is permitted, if your proposed location is in a neighborhood, it's important to think about how your choice may influence your neighbors' daily experiences. For instance, if the closest water sources for your bees are your neighbors' swimming pools, they may not be delighted with your new hives. Many non-beekeepers don't distinguish between honey bees and every other flying, possibly stinging, insect. You may get complaints about wild insect problems over which you have no control. It can take patience and tactfulness (and maybe jars of honey from time to time) to be a good bee-keeping neighbor.
Security for the hives is another human problem to think about. Hives in remote locations may become targets of vandals who think of them as nuisances to be toppled over just for kicks, or even stolen.
And finally, there are the small-scale hive siting considerations which can go a long way to making your life as beekeeper more carefree and successful.
If you keep your hives near your house, think about how you and your family members (and your near neighbors, too) are presently using their outdoor spaces. Honey bees, if left to their own devices, will generally go about their business without interfering with humans. But if humans and the bees are using the same airspace, conflicts can arise. Think about where you sit, play, work, or eat outdoors. Try to make sure that the bees' flight paths within at least 100 feet from the hive fronts do not directly go through high-use areas. Picnic tables, fire pits, patios, and play areas are all places where bees coming and going to their hive and humans may bump into each other. Sometimes a few sections of eight-foot tall fencing are all that's needed to redirect bee-flight high enough upward to be over the heads of people on the ground. (Think about fencing, too, if neighbors might complain about your bees being in their yards. Of course, you can't redirect yellow jackets or wasps, but you can make sure your honey bees are not being annoying.)
When considering conflicts between humans' outdoor activities and bees, don't forget to think through the whole year.
All these factors will have an impact on the success of any proposed bee yard. Some may be modifiable (you can add bear fencing, for instance), but some may remain difficult to solve. Since the analysis of each site is multifactorial and it's hard to keep so many decision points in mind, we've made a chart that you can print and fill out for each possible location. Make your best estimate in each category of the better, or more problematic status of each one. What will emerge is a scatter chart that will visually reveal which site has the best overall siting characteristics. If you can modify any factor and move it towards a more positive position, just make a note of it as a “cost” of a particular site. You can consider all the factors listed on the chart or just a few of the most important ones to you.