Moving the Bees

Before we moved into the farm, the bee hives were all over the place, generally within spitting distance of the house. (Check out the vines working their way across the porch in this photo.)

HIves on the back verandah, right outside the door to the lounge

Hives on the back verandah, right outside the door to the lounge

Hives by the house

Hives by the house

They simply had to be moved to a nice little apiary – or at least the 23 hives that were too close for comfort had to. The problem is you can’t move hive boxes a few meters or the bees return to the old location and sit around scratching their heads trying to figure out what happened to their home. You need to move the hives a few kilometers away, then back to their new position after a couple of weeks when they’ve forgotten their old stomping ground.  If the move is far enough so they don’t recognise the area, they study the terrain and reset their homing beacon (or whatever it is). If they do recognise the area, they go back to where the hive was when they last paid attention. There is also the (highly impractical for 23 boxes) option of moving each hive 1 meter each day until you manage to move them the distance you’d originally planned.

Our hives had to move 75 meters or thereabouts so first, off they went to a field in the nearby university…

Strapped hives, ready to move

Strapped hives, ready to move

7 weeks later, in a night-time operation, back they came, safe and sound (if a little flustered) to the new apiary which is a good distance from our back porch. (Ah, the vines are gone.)

Apiary from the back verandah

Apiary from the back verandah

Here they are in the new apiary.

23 hives in the apiary

23 hives in the apiary

We’re a bit of a worried about a few of the hives. Some are very light and some had piles of dead bees out front. All definitely have small hive beetle infestations. There is a lot of work to be done to get them back to health. Bruce, the apiarist in charge, will come out next week, once the bees have settled after their move, and we’ll start opening boxes. Until then, Frank and I will level the boxes (they were plunked into the mud – of course the first rain we’ve had in weeks happened to come mid-move) and watch.

Hopefully they’ll settle in quickly and will stop landing all over their hives and find their way in and out quickly. I wonder how many bees are changing hives in this confusion?

bees landing on the side of the hive

bees landing on the side of a hive – maybe theirs, maybe not

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About Laura Rittenhouse

I'm an American-Australian author, gardener and traveller. Go to my writing website: www.laurarittenhouse.com for more. If you're trying to find my gardening blog, it's here.
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24 Responses to Moving the Bees

  1. hobacaitbe says:

    Laura, do you think bees or chickens are easier?? Also cost per effort?? Just curious. Bees look like a lot more stuff to learn. This week my chickens have been a lot more effort than before.
    Ed

    • Bees are easier (which is easy for me to say – hubby got stung in the eyelid when moving the bees and half his face has swollen and his eye closed up – but it’s already getting better so I’m not counting that). When I had 3 hives they took an hour a week on average in season to check them and deal with any problems. Harvest took about 1 day every 5-6 weeks (4 harvests). And I made back all the money I put into them in about 4 months. That is in Sydney with 2 super strong hives (the 3rd came as a swarm and yielded nothing but cost a bit). Plus, when I went out of town, I didn’t have to find babysitters. There is really no downside to bees. Except, they are wild animals and so are not pets and I never got attached to them. I cared for them and felt responsible, but not like with my chickens.

      Chickens are easy, but do take a bit of effort every single day. They need feeding and watering and attention if nothing else. And you know better than anybody – after Ini’s run in with a fox – that any problems with a chook are real problems. If a bee dies, there are a few thousand backing her up, if a chook dies, it’s a sad thing to be avoided at all cost. And I’m skeptical if there is a real payback on the chicken front (I only eat eggs, not meat which would be a different thing). Once you’ve paid your upfront costs (coop, fencing, birds) there is a constant ongoing cost of feed. I guess We spend about $20 per month on food for our girls. Probably about what we’d spend on eggs if we didn’t have chickens.

      The way I see it, bees are very cool – actually amazing – animals and critical to our environment and produce honey which is a mind-boggling food. There is no reason not to keep them if you have space and the right climate. Chickens are the most adorable creatures that are sweet little pets (if only they could be house broken!) and produce eggs – sort of nature’s wonder food. But they can really only be kept if you have time and space to make them happy and keep them safe.

      What both have done is impacted my eating. I eat less meat because I have eggs to get through (fried egg with a roll for lunch rather than ham or similar, quiche, souffle… rather than roast or whatever other dinner) and I bake with honey as a substitute for sugar. Both these changes are healthier for me and better for the environment. So both animals win on that front.

      I could go on and on and on but basically, I’m sold on both bees and chooks and think everyone should have some!

      • hobacaitbe says:

        Well, you have me thinking of getting bees. My wife might not be thrilled.
        Ed

        • Wait till she gets that first pot of honey and maybe a candle made from wax produced by your bees – she’ll sing a different tune then 🙂 Seriously, I just love watching bees fly in and out of their hive and I get a little burst of pleasure each time I spot a bee on a flower in my garden. You really start to see and appreciate nature at work all around you when you have bees.

  2. did you keep your hives separate? or mix them in with the others? It seems as though you made such an effort to keep yours disease free and happy, that it would be a shame to just mix them together. also with so many hives all together don’t they have to go further afield to find food?

    • We made the hard decision to get rid of our hives because we didn’t want to be accused of introducing any problems to the hives on this property. Our hives were healthy and I’m sure there wouldn’t have been a problem, but it didn’t seem worth the risk. Plus, with everything we had on our plate with this move, moving 3 more hives from 2 hours away seemed unnecessary.

      We do plan to get more hives of our own in spring (probably catch swarms from the bees on this property) but there’s no point in separating them. Bees easily travel a couple kilometres so they’d interact anyway.

      Yes, I think they may need to work harder to feed themselves in this density but I keep being told that this isn’t a problem in this region. Apparently the property could support double the hives which is good because 2 universities have hives here bringing the total number to more than 50.

  3. Hearing about bees on your blog is always so interesting to me!

  4. cohutt says:

    Every time you post about bees I get a little closer to having my own hives. 🙂

  5. We can not speak from experience but the renowned Michael Bush asserts that you can move a hive any distance in one go. The trick is to trigger re-orientation by putting an obstacle right in front of the moved hive entrance for a few days. A departing forager will try to rocket on her way as usual, have to unexpectedly detour, and decide she had better reacquaint herself with the location of home.

    http://bushfarms.com/beesmoving.htm#between

    • And having hurried to pass along the link as soon as possible, we return to finish reading and discover it is too late to spare you any labor. Woe.

      • 🙂 Not to worry. It wasn’t that difficult the way we did it anyway, at least not for me as the guys did all the lifting. To be honest, the method suggested by Michael Bush sounds harder, reordering the boxes in each hive would probably take longer than just moving the whole hive twice. At least when you’re dealing with 23 hives.

  6. Emily Heath says:

    Painting patterns on the hives or laying them out in a semi-circle shape (entrances facing out wards) can help prevent drifting.

    • I’ve heard that. I wonder if drifting is a problem. It’s so hard to know. I will try to pay attention to the outside hives and see if they all get stronger (a sign of drifting – or could be coincidence). I’ll try to chat to the apiarist about it but somehow I suspect he doesn’t do that with his multiple-hundred hives so will think it a bit silly for so few. Funny how your perspective changes depending when you have 1 or 2 hives versus several hundred.

      • Emily Heath says:

        Fair point! My main worry would be the possible spread of diseases.

        • In an apiary with so many hives so close together I’m sure disease control will be really difficult. I will ask the apiarist if he has any strategies beyond regular checks. I think the truth is that even without drift, the bees are sharing the same flowers and so disease spread is a problem anyway.

  7. Pingback: Busy Bees | Laura Rittenhouse's Gardening Journal

  8. I’d never heard about re-orientating the bees. It must be based on some natural instinct but I cannot think their hive would have the tendency to move kilometres away in nature.

    • Emily Heath says:

      Swarming would be one instance when the bees find themselves in a new location a good distance away.

      • Right, they find themselves at a distance just as they do when they madly follow in the swarm. But do they return to the home hive when they swarm?

        • Emily Heath says:

          They wouldn’t usually return to the home hive, no. But perhaps it’s useful for them to be able to adapt and reorient themselves just in case something happens to change the local environment, such as a storm knocking down some trees.

        • They don’t return to the home hive when they swarm. The whole point of a swarm is to make a new hive. Of course, like with everything about bees, there are going to be exceptions. Some colonies behave strangely and re-merge after swarming (why????).

          As Emily says, bees are able to adapt to a surprise change. In fact, I have met a beekeeper who thinks that moving a hive twice like we did is a waste of time. He swears that he can move a hive any distance and by putting some grass in front of the hive entrance, that’s enough of a disruption to make the bees spend time reorienting themselves so they don’t end up back at the old hive location. This is probably similar to what would happen if a branch that supported the hive fell from the tree. But it’s pretty much common practice to move a hive twice if you’re just moving it 50 metres and who am I to argue with common practice?

    • They don’t generally, certainly never without flying there. Bees have a good orienting system so they can always find their way home. Their home isn’t expected to move which is why if you move a hive 10 metres, the bees go back to where the original hive was. Nothing in evolution prepared them for a comb full of brood to pack up and move. As for moving kilometres, as Emily points out, they can do that when they swarm, though when that happens, they fly there and are expecting to need to reorient themselves.

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