prep your apiary for new bees

To-Do List: Prepare Your Apiary For New Bees

Written by Ruth O’Neill. Ruth is a Research Associate in the Wanner Extension Entomology Lab at Montana State University, who cooperates on a variety of projects related to insect pests of crops.  She has experience as a hobbyist beekeeper, and has a special interest in honey bee health and protection.

If you are new to beekeeping you should by now have ordered your new bees.  Whether you have decided on package bees or a miniature colony complete with a few frames of brood (a.k.a. a nuc colony), now is the time to prep your apiary site that will be ready ahead of your bees’ arrival.

First, choose your apiary site.

When deciding on the site, there are several important factors to consider:

  1. You will thank yourself later if you pick a place with good vehicle access. You don’t want to be lugging bee equipment over long distances for hive inspections.  And at harvest time, you don’t want to be carrying full supers of honey any farther than you have to.  A medium-sized super full of honey can weigh nearly 50 pounds.
  2. Nectar / pollen sources should be reasonably abundant within two miles. However, don’t overthink this requirement.  Keep in mind that bees are very resourceful and can collect an astonishing amount of nectar and pollen in what, to us, looks like barren wasteland.  Even weedy trashy-looking ditches can provide excellent forage for bees.
  3. To the extent possible, set your hives back from roads with heavy, fast-moving traffic.
  4. Bees need to have water nearby, and if there is no natural surface water available you will need to provide a container of fresh water at all times during the active season. Although bees receive all the moisture they need to drink from nectar, they rely on water to cool the hive in hot weather.  Cooling is achieved by moistening hive surfaces and fanning their wings to create a draft.  If the dog’s water dish or a livestock trough happens to be the nearest water source, that is where bees will collect water, and this can create a real nuisance to you or your neighbors.  You can prevent this problem by placing water in your apiary.  Water dishes should be filled with clean rocks to provide dry platforms for water-collecting bees.  This will save many bees from drowning.

More info about location >>

Second, remember that other animals will take an interest in your apiary.

Be prepared for problems with bears, skunks, raccoons, mice, or shrews. It’s nearly impossible to select a site that is guaranteed to protect your hives from these animals, but there are ways to discourage their activities:

  1. Bears are large enough to knock your hives over and rip them into splinters. Bears can sometimes be deterred with electric fencing, although a very determined bear may overlook the punishment.  You can try keeping your hives on a raised balcony if you don’t mind having your bees that close to your house.  Some people have had good success protecting their hives in a sturdy dog kennel.
  2. You may notice animal droppings around your hive and muddy entrance boards, which usually indicates a problem with skunks or, occasionally, raccoons.  Skunks will sit at a hive’s entrance and snack on the guard bees.  Raising your hive stand to a height of about 20 inches is thought to minimize problems with skunks.
  3. Mice are seldom a problem during the warmer months, but when bees are tightly clustered during the winter mice can sneak into hives unmolested by bees. They build nests, defecate and urinate all over the frames,  and feast on unprotected honey and pollen stores.  Mice are everywhere, so it’s futile to look for a mouse-free zone for your apiary.  Focus instead barring mice out during the winter months with mouseguards fitted into  the hive entrances.  Mouseguards can be purchased online, or made at home out of various materials, using anything that provides a series of openings large enough to allow an individual bee to pass through each opening (about 1/4 inch) but will prevent mice from entering.  Mouseguards will also protect your hives from shrews, little hunters that feed on worker bees, leaving decapitated bee bodies strewn about the hive entrance.
  4. Fence livestock out of your apiary. Horses and cattle are often curious about hives and may knock them over if they have access to them.

Info about bear electric fencing >>

Third, assemble your hives.

Graphic by Ruth O’Neill

Set your hives up before your bees arrive. When the time comes, you don’t want any unnecessary delays in introducing your bees to their new home.  You won’t need all of the hive components at first, just one brood box full of frames.  Put the brood box on a bottom board and hive stand, and cover the assembly with an inner cover and a telescoping outer cover.

Learn about the parts of a hive >>

Tips for multiple hives

If you will have more than one hive, remember that hives can be placed right next to each other, so close that the hive covers can be within inches of touching each other. The bees do not mind sharing close quarters, and clustering your hives not only saves space, but a neighboring hive gives you a convenient working surface for your hive tools and other equipment when you are doing hive inspections.

Don’t place more than two hives in a row, however, as the hives in the center of the row will not have any side access, which you will want for your own convenience and for any time you want another person there with you.  You can cluster as many as four hives together if you wish, by placing one pair of hives back-to-back with another pair.  Note: make sure each one of your hives has a clear flight path to the entrance – don’t block the flight path with trees, fences, or other hives.