Too Much of a Good Thing?

Contributed by Tyson Hermes

Do you have too many hives in your apiary?

The fall harvest is complete for most beekeepers in our area, and now we begin our Winter preparations.  I have heard stories from a number of beekeepers (similar to my own situation)...  There was not much, if anything, to harvest this Fall!

As I helped my friend and mentor Jim Orem with his honey harvest, he had an interesting observation.  “Did you notice that we had more frames to harvest from the outyards with 1 or 2 hives, than we did from the main apiary with 10+ hives?”, he said.  Truth be told, I didn’t notice.  It was shortly after a storm on a cloudy day in late September.  The bees were "grumpy", as Jim put it.  I have never seen a bee-suit so littered with stingers as I did that day.  I couldn’t have laid a quarter on Jim’s gloves without touching at least one stinger.

But hours later, back in the Honey House, when Jim had mentioned this, and I had a chance to think, I agreed!  Yes!  The hives that were by themselves had an entire super (9 frames) of capped honey.  The hives in Jim's primary apiary [with 7+ hives] averaged 1 or 2 frames (if any) per hive. Each hive competes for resources with the others!
As you may have heard, bees will travel 2 to 5 miles to a nectar source.  I won’t dispute that, because I can’t prove it right or wrong.  However I highly doubt it.  Even if a bee was traveling with a load of nectar from 5 miles away, I’d think she would have burned-off her load in the energy required for the return flight.

The other rule of thumb I’ve heard is "1000 yards" – The bees' primary stores of honey come from 1000 yards of the hive.  A thousand yards is roughly a half-mile.  Can you see a half-mile from your hive?  What do you see?  Is it rolling meadows, abundant with nectar-laden wildflowers?  Is it woods?  Is it corn fields?  Skyscrapers?  Subdivision?  Pay attention to this!

My most productive hives are in a rural setting, surrounded with fields for horses and cows.  One area is very hilling, so there are lots of scattered trees, and tall weeds/ wildflowers because they are spots that are difficult to bush-hog.  My least productive hives sit inside subdivisions.

I’ve had 4 hives at my home in a subdivision for 2 years.  In preparations for Winter last year I combined the weak hives with the strong hives resulting in 2 Wintered hives.  Neither hive survived the Winter.  But as a beekeeper, I split a Winter survivor from another location, and brought 2 hives back home.  Over the course of the Spring I caught 2 more swarms, resulting in 4 hives again at home.  Now that it is October, I am beginning to assess the situation, and it seems like I am in the "same boat".  Two weak hives, and two strong hives.  Maybe I just shouldn’t have 4 hives at my home!

As beekeepers it's hard not to do the things that have been pounded into our heads by most of the books, and people who want to sell us something.  "Your bees don’t have enough honey? You need to feed them sugar syrup with our super-mega feeding stimulant!"  "Not enough honey? You need to re-queen with a Russian!"  "Your hive died? You need to replace it with our mite-resistant package bees!"

Let's take a step back.  If the bees were in nature, and there were a high concentration of colonies in one area, and not enough nectar sources to support all of them, nature would take care of the problem…  In all likelihood, the weak colonies would die, and the strong would survive.

This thought has made me re-evaluate my Spring Plan (Yes! We should already be planning for next Spring).  I am going to try to practice the same thing as Mother Nature.  Instead of trying to fix the problem by forcing an unnatural solution, I am going to replace lost hives with new hives in a completely different location… My personal management-style has at least 2 hives at any given location.  It just makes beekeeping easier in general (and keeps me from having to purchase queens)… I have come to accept that maybe 4 hives is too many at my house (there are also 3 other beekeepers within ¼ mile).  I have also come to accept that other locations, like next to expansive corn fields, may not be good for ANY hives (not just because of pesticides, but mainly the lack of nectar sources).

Bees are important, and I plan to continue to add new hives next year by splitting winter survivors.  Don’t let the title of this article deceive you – We need more bees, in general.  But next year, I plan to increase my harvest by diversifying my locations, preferably more than a mile apart.

Tyson is a second-year beekeeper in Erlanger, KY.  He currently has 8 hives at 3 different locations.  He also enjoys candle-making, and has begun to try mead-making.  Click here to email him.

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