Location, location, location

Synopsis: Finding a good apiary location involves homework and legwork. What should you look for and what to avoid? A good apiary will ensure your bees are more productive and your beekeeping is much more enjoyable, so finding one is time well invested.

Introduction

It was the writer and diarist John Evelyn (1620 – 1706) who, in 1697, first used the term apiary to mean a place where hives are kept. Apiary also means a bee house 1, but for the purpose of this post I’m going to restrict myself to outdoor locations where bees are kept.

How should you go about finding a good apiary location?

Remember … bees are not pets.

They are working livestock.

That sting.

They are also quite high maintenance.

Despite what some seem to suggest, you cannot just dump them in any old field and return months later to harvest buckets of beautiful honey. For about six months of the year they need regular checks to ensure they have enough space, to prevent them from swarming and to make sure they are healthy.

If Carlsberg did apiaries … an apiary in Andalucia

All of these things – their work needs 2, the maintenance, the stinging – need to be taken into account when deciding where to site your beehives.

Since I’m in the process of finding and setting up a new apiary I thought it might be timely 3 to discuss the topic in a little more detail.

The garden … perhaps not the best choice

Many beekeepers keep their bees in their garden.

It’s certainly convenient.

However, as I’ve discussed before, there are a number of disadvantages. If you have a small urban garden you can be certain that ” … whatever the evidence (or lack of it), it will be your bees that sting your neighbours grandchild, poop on their Beemer and swarm onto the garden swing.”

Swarm on a swing ... not ideal if it's in the next door garden

Swarm on a swing … not ideal if it’s in the next door garden

Although I always site bait hives in my garden, until I moved to the remote west coast I’ve never kept bees there permanently 4.

My bees are generally well behaved and my swarm control is reasonably good. However, even the most benign bees can have a bad day, and reasonably good means that there is still room for improvement 5.

It just takes one stung grandchild, one BMW getting the pointillism with poop treatment, or one missed queen cell, to potentially sour relationships forever with your neighbours.

Why risk it?

Yes, it’s convenient 6.

Yes, it’s wonderful to be able to see the bees busily flying in and out.

But disputes with neighbours can get ugly and are cited as the reason for over 350,000 people moving house each year.

Is that a risk worth taking?

The garden … you’ll still need an out apiary

If you do intend to keep bees in the garden, check the deeds to make sure that it’s allowed. Some preclude ‘keeping livestock’ which, from a legal perspective, probably means bees 7.

And, if you do keep bees in your garden, I’d argue you still need an additional, or ‘out’, apiary 8. There are two reasons for this:

  • If and when you need to move your bees you will potentially have to do so at very short notice 9. If the colony goes queenless and gets stroppy, or a child develops an anaphylactic reaction, the neighbours are not going to accept being told ”It’ll be OK in 3-4 weeks … and it might not be my bees anyway”. Remember, it’s the summer and they want to have a BBQ.
  • Some beekeeping manipulations (like making up nucs for swarm control) are made easier by simply moving bees to a distant site.

For the rest of this post I’m going to focus on the features I look for in an apiary location, largely concentrating on rural or semi-rural areas 10. I’ll focus on the needs of both the bees and the beekeeper, and I’ll include some suggestions to make your searches a little easier.

Food and water

Other than in very specific circumstances 11 the area around the apiary must have good forage.

Without ample pollen and nectar being available the colony will not thrive, and they certainly will not collect excess nectar to provide you with a honey crop.

If the intention is to use the apiary year-round then there must be forage available throughout the period of the year when the bees are active.

Of course, the bees will range far and wide to find suitable forage, but the closer they are to it the better they will do.

My hives in this field margin did fantastically well on the oil seed rape (OSR), but they also benefitted from hedgerow flowers and tree pollens, and from ample dandelion, clover and blackberry. Even without the OSR, it was a good spot.

Mid-April in the apiary ...

Mid-April in a Warwickshire apiary …

In additional to good forage, bees also need to have access to water. My bees spend hours collecting water from a natural pool a dozen yards from the hives. It is possible to provide water from an artificial source – like a moss-filled bucket in the apiary – but a natural source doesn’t need topping up unless there’s a serious drought.

Marooned ...

Marooned …

But don’t site your hives too close to water if there is any risk of flooding.

Hives, particularly poly hives, do float. However, they don’t necessarily float the right way up.

Searching for a new apiary location in midwinter can help exclude some sites where flooding might be an issue.

In contrast, identifying suitable forage in midwinter is more difficult. In my experience the only ways to identify whether an area has suitable year-round forage are to:

  • learn what the major forage types are (even when they’re not in flower), and then spend time reconnoitering likely areas 12.
  • ask other beekeepers 13.

But where do you start looking?

Near … but not too near

If you are looking for an out apiary i.e. one located some distance from your ‘home’ apiary 14 then it makes sense to search at least 3 miles away. This is because, although bees can return to a hive from further away, if their originating hive is moved at least three miles they reorientate to the new location. This means you can make up nucs or move mating hives to the out apiary without the risk of the flying bees returning to their original location.

But, if you are looking for your first apiary, it makes sense to choose an area close enough to home so that travel doesn’t become a big part of your beekeeping. It’s surprising how often you forget things, or how often you just need to nip back to the bees to do something trivial.

Some of my apiaries are 130 miles from home and I write lists of what I need to take with me. Just ‘nipping back’ is not an option … all my colony manipulations have to be completed during scheduled visits.

Setting up a new apiary

There’s one more thing to consider when thinking about the general area in which to search for a suitable apiary site … where do other beekeepers keep their bees?

Ask some of the ‘old hands’ in your association. They might not tell you exactly where their bees are, but they are likely to be able to give you some general pointers.

In addition, keep your eyes peeled 15 when you are out and about on your travels.

I enjoy walking and it’s surprising the number of field margins, copses and rough land where you can find a few hives tucked away out of plain sight. Take a note of where they are and then start to focus in on areas that might be suitable for you.

Google it

Google and Microsoft both have excellent mapping facilities and these can help you find a suitable location for an apiary.

If you know where your home apiary is and/or the location of other hives in the area, you can plot the potential foraging range of bees from these apiaries, and look for likely looking gaps.

The following example is entirely hypothetical. It’s based upon an apiary of mine (blue circle) in Warwickshire, now vacated. The red circles mark other apiaries and the black circle is the limit beyond which I wasn’t prepared to travel 16.

Spheres of influence

If you find likely looking gaps in the overlapping circles they might be a good place to start your detailed search for an apiary. 

It’s also worth noting that the high resolution satellite images available from Google and Microsoft allow a much more detailed search for suitable apiary sites. This type of online searching cannot replace walking around a few fields, but they might well help you decide which side of the field to start at.

Look for access tracks that fade away to nothing, wide field margins, corners of agricultural land that remain unploughed, large clearings in small woods or copses etc.

A potential access track to a new apiary?

Remember, you might have to do this in the ‘off season’ so it’s worth learning to identify likely forage (or at least potential forage) when the area looks a lot less bee-friendly than it would in midseason.

Hi-res can help (you and the bad guys)

And also look for signs that other beekeepers have already placed hives in the area.

I can see you …

In the areas with the highest resolution mapping it is possible to ‘find’ hives that may be invisible from a cursory drive past or walk through an area. It’s worth using both Microsoft and Google maps for these detailed searches as they use different satellite images (and update them relatively frequently) and so details can be visible on one that are invisible on the other.

The photo above shows a few hives in a field on a Google satellite images. The photo below shows the Microsoft image of the same site.

I can see a lot more of you …

The half dozen hives visible in the first of these two pictures wouldn’t have stopped me looking for a suitable apiary nearby. The fifteen or more additional hives in the lee of the hedge (hidden in shade in the first picture) suggests that the area might be saturated with bees and that I should look elsewhere.

In places, the detail on these satellite images is amazing. Here’s the Google image of my first bee shed within a fenced area also containing half a dozen hives.

My bee shed

Be aware that anyone can view these images and that they therefore potentially pose a security risk 17. If you already have an established apiary check to see how visible it is … you might be surprised (and disappointed).

Boots on the ground

Once you’ve done enough homework it’s time to start visiting a few likely looking locations to see if they might be suitable.

Obviously you should not trespass (and the freedom to roam rights in Scotland are a huge bonus here) but it’s usually quite easy to determine whether an area is a non-starter or has some real promise.

A site that looked good in theory, but not in practice

You might need use your imagination. What will it look like on a dry May afternoon, rather than a dreich morning in January?

The site above looked semi-promising on the map. However, the conifers were larger than I’d expected and the site would have been too shaded.

When will the sun first appear? In hilly areas you can calculate when the sun will appear and disappear over the horizon using a combination of this tool to determine the trajectory of the sun and this tool to calculate the horizon.

How good is access? Remember, you might want access late evening or early morning to move hives. If it’s close to the farmhouse/stately home that might not be possible.

And, conversely, how secure is the site likely to be?

Is there safe parking nearby?

Can you drive right up to the (likely spot for the) hives, or will there be carrying involved?

In either case, how soft is the ground? Will you need wellies, a hivebarrow, a Toyota Hilux or a canoe?

Is the area likely to be a frost pocket? If so, look elsewhere.

What is the shelter like in the direction of the prevailing weather?

Is there sufficient space? You might start with just a couple of hives, but if your ambition is to have a dozen this makes additional demands on the space and forage needed.

Time spent in reconnaissance etc.

I try and work out all of the above before I approach the landowner 18.

Rather than asking Can I put some bees on your land?, when the answer might be affirmative but you might be offered an unsuitable location, it’s better to ask ”Can I put some hives in the north-west corner of the field with the large dead oak tree in it?

You’ve already worked out that access is good and the ground is well drained, you can face the hives in a south easterly direction to get the morning sun, there’s excellent shelter to the west, the site isn’t overlooked and there are no footpaths or bridleways nearby.

Nice wide field margins … but is that a footpath?

By all means justify your choice to the landowner, and consider other locations if offered. However, don’t just accept somewhere without considering all the pros and cons first.

You probably have a much better idea of what your bees need. You certainly have a better idea of what you (as the beekeeper) need. Don’t lose sight of these in your discussions.

A jar or two of honey to sweeten the deal always helps. You should expect to pay a ground rent which you should agree when you start.

Exchange contact details and tell the landowner your vehicle registration so they don’t mistake you for a poacher or flytipper … and congratulate yourself on a job well done.

Final considerations

Most of what I’ve written above largely applies to finding apiary sites in rural areas. That’s because those are the locations I’ve used for 95% of my beekeeping. I’ve never kept bees on an allotment 19 and the bees I’ve kept in gardens have been – and still are – in gardens surrounded by open countryside or farmland.

In the latter cases I talked to the landowner first, often after they bought honey from me and then asked whether I was looking for another site for hives. I explain in detail the type of location(s) I’m looking for and then have a guided tour of their land.

If you explain in advance that you want a south-east facing sunny site you can avoid sounding too negative when they offer you a heavily shaded damp corner behind the compost bins 20.

The search for a suitable apiary location can take weeks or months … or you might find it at the very first gateway you stop at.

It’s certainly well worth investing time in finding a suitable site. A well chosen apiary will make your beekeeping a much more enjoyable experience and should make your bees a lot more productive.


 

Footnotes

  1. See posts I’ve made on bee sheds.
  2. i.e. forage.
  3. And relatively easy to write as it’s at the forefront of my mind …
  4. I do now have bees in my ‘garden’, but it’s not a garden in the conventional sense … it’s just rough hillside and mixed woodland surrounding the house and separating us from the howling wilderness.
  5. Quite a bit of room.
  6. Keeping bees in the garden that is, not souring relationships with your neighbours.
  7. But remember, I’m a beekeeper (just about) not a lawyer, so you might be wise to get a second opinion. However, unlike me, the lawyer will probably charge you (handsomely) for the opinion.
  8. The term ‘out apiary’ is often used to indicate a secondary apiary, distant from your main apiary.
  9. Hours, not days.
  10. But some of the points will be relevant to urban apiaries as well, so keep reading.
  11. These are outside the scope of this post, but I’m really referring here to apiaries set up for queen mating or as quarantine apiaries.
  12. John Marsden’s ”Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted” is particularly relevant here.
  13. And be aware that they might not want the competition.
  14. Even if your ‘home’ apiary isn’t located where your home is located.
  15. i.e. be alert, a phrase that has its origins with Sir Robert Peel, the founder of the first organised British police force in the 1820’s.
  16. In reality, this area of Warwickshire has bees in almost every other field, not least because it’s a pretty good environment for bees and my alma mater association (Warwick and Leamington beekeepers) are very active and have well over 300 members. It was a great area to have a bait hive or three ;-)
  17. I’ve either doctored the images above, or – in the case of the bee shed – used an undoctored image of a shed and apiary that was moved over two years ago. The more up-to-date photos on Bing now just show the shed foundations.
  18. Finding the landowner I’ll leave as an exercise for the reader. If it’s farmland it makes sense to ask at the nearest farmhouse. If it’s in the Capability Brown-sculpted surroundings of a stately home then … good luck with that!
  19. I had trouble enough growing the carrots.
  20. That’s a real example!

16 thoughts on “Location, location, location

  1. Militza Flores

    From the Caribbean, Puerto Rico want to let you know I enjoy your posts!!! This one is very relatable, since I’ve had several failures in deciding a good place to locate the hives…. we do not have snow, but we have to deal with heavy rain and tropical hurricanes and all that comes with that.

    Again, thank you- you are an inspiration!!!
    Militza

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Militza

      Welcome 🙂

      I don’t get many visitors from Puerto Rico and I suspect our beekeeping is rather different from yours. We do get heavy rain and, if not hurricanes, then some pretty violent storms. Most of last weekend was spent without power due to two winter storms.

      There was a recent paper discussing the potential impact of introduced Apis mellifera on native pollinators in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. This topic is a bit outside my area of expertise, but I’ve been doing some reading on honey bee competition with native pollinators as it’s an important topic.

      I hope you find some other posts of interest.

      Best Wishes
      David

      Reply
  2. Bridget Clyde

    It was interesting in the zoom questions and answers with Murray McGregor on Wednesday when asked what he would liked to see improved in Scottish beekeeping he answered forage. It was a worry for us when we first started here in the highlands that there would not be enough early forage but I’m reassured there is enough after 10 years. However we get very little blossom honey and rely mainly on the heather. However, this past season with the lockdown I spent quite some time in the greenhouse, growing plants lots and lots of plants I knew bees liked. Many times I’ve been told by more experienced beekeepers that it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference. However we had poor heather this year, over very quick, but the bees kept foraging in the garden until well into September. Our honey crop was 3 times more than its ever been, both blossom and late summer. Of course we had some great weather in June and no June or in our case break July break in forage. . The jury is out of course but I have sent samples of both honeys off to be tested and I’m waiting with baited (or maybe it’s bated?) breath for the results due soonish.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Bridget

      I didn’t hear Murray as I was giving another talk (and I know that Randy Oliver was also talking on the same night, so I’m very grateful to audience who tuned in to listen to me). My bees in Fife never really struggle with forage. If anything, it’s a bit less ‘boom and bust’ which was what sometimes happened in the Midlands. However, it’s really noticeable that it varies quite a bit from year to year. In some years there is a noticeable June gap, in others the spring nectars segue almost seamlessly into the summer’s.

      Here on the west coast I’ve really only got the experience from last year (which was pretty exceptional). It’s a pity they don’t forage on the rhododendron as there’s an almost limitless supply (though the honey might be a bit strange). Good to know you’ve managed to (at least potentially) to supplement things. The honey analysis will be interesting. Any attempts at growing flowers here are more or less futile due to the ravages of the herds of rampaging deer, so I’ll be preparing some pollen (sub) patties and thin syrup for the lean times 😉

      It’s bated breath … where bated means lowered or lessened in position, amount, force or estimation. Apparently it dates back to Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice (1600) … at least, that’s what the OED tells me.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  3. Iain Dewar

    Hi David,

    Hot topic! Location, forage, security, public access, safety, liability, so many issues!

    Garden hives always had their risks but lately I’ve learned there are other things to worry about.

    In the last couple of decades interest in and access to the countryside has dramatically changed, as has public perception of what it is and how it’s used. Not all of it desirable. More and more are accessing every corner and unfortunarely not everyone visiting the countryside and the out of the way places where our apiaries have been traditionally sited have a healthy respect or informed knowledge of what goes on there, or what’s acceptable.

    Very recently after noticing odd things at one of my out apiaries sited in an ‘off grid’ remote farmland location I installed a Trail Cam. What it revealled was startling. Not only were more people using the remote dead end farm track than I or the farmer had realised, but one family were actually going through the hives in sub zero temperatures, and not just the once. They did this at their own peril and that of their two very young children standing right up against the front of the hives while dad took the roof, covers and quilts off. It raised a few issues that I discussed at length with the police, bee inspectors and other Scot Gov officials.

    It turns out hived bees are not legally livestock as I had always understood. They may be ‘ live stock’ but the relevant legislation only covers vertebrates and excludes our invertebrate bees, and unless there is actual damage to property there is nothing the police can do to protect our stocks. The Wildlife and Countryside Act is a non starter as it too doesn’t include bees, and the Countryside Access Code is even less use as it can’t be enforced . And here’s the rub, should someone be injured on your site by stinging for instance, case law tends to show beekeepers being liable!

    Yes siting an apiary requires a lot of consideration.

    Who said it was easy?!

    Cheers

    Iain 🙄

    ps – change is a’comin!

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Iain

      I know of others who have had hives meddled with … some without apparently causing damage, and others being wilful acts of vandalism. I know Murray McGregor has recounted finding complete hives from which nucs have been removed, including the laying Q. The latter must be due to ‘beekeepers’ (clearly not real beekeepers, but someone with sufficient knowledge and training to know how to prepare a nuc and include the Q). The former could be anyone ranging from Buckie-swilling neds to just the incurably nosey.

      You make an interesting comment about the livestock issue. Thank you. It’s something I’ve meant to look into before (and clearly should again).

      Finally, the trailcam is a good idea. We had them in an association apiary in the Midlands and I’ve got several here for the wildlife. Perhaps I’ll place one in my next apiary and see what happens when I’m not around.

      I wonder whether a sign warning “Caution bees at work” provides any legal protection? I’m not sure I want to know the answer really as I suspect it doesn’t 🙁

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
      1. Iain Dewar

        Hi David,

        That is the conclusion we came to after discussions with the police etc, a soft touch using carefully worded signs and a rope barrier. Got metal signs (from China of course!) and we’re monitoring with the camera.

        The worry is these fools opening the hive and the bees flying out at them, then running off leaving the hive open.

        Cheers,

        Iain

        Reply
        1. David Post author

          Hi Iain

          Obviously your apiary is beautifully mown … unlike mine. I could hide a bear trap in mine, though I’d obviously accompany it with a carefully worded sign 😉

          Bear trap ...

          For anyone reading this who is totally lacking a sense of humour this is a joke.

          Anyway, the long grass in my apiaries is littered with lost, razor sharp, hive tools which are a death trap. I think I should invite The Detectorists round to find some of them.

          Cheers
          David

          PS I had two six frame nucs which lost their roofs in a storm last year. They were like that for a fortnight and both survived. Not winter, but it’s surprising how hardy bees are.

          Reply
  4. Dave Stokes

    Hi David, Thanks for another interesting read. Strangely, My apiary has disappeared from Google maps in the last few months though it was still in its field the other day.
    Incidentally, I am planning to replace (or cover) my zinc shiny metal roofs with felt so that they don’t catch the sunlight.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Dave

      When I first realised how good the resolution was on some of those satellite images I painted a few zinc hives roofs with matt paint to camouflage them. This photo dates back to 2014.

      Green hive roofs

      The image resolution differs in different parts of the country … perhaps Google replaced low resolution current images with older, high resolution ones? Much of Scotland appears to be somewhat lower resolution … good from a security point of view, but it means a bit more schlepping about the countryside when you’re looking for potential new sites.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  5. Lorraine

    I have started reading your blog recently as I will be doing a beginner bee keeper course starting this month.
    I am curious regarding the conversation with landowners. Do you discuss the use of pesticides on their crops or are you looking at negotiation in areas of rewilding?
    I live in a rural area with fields and rivers all around. (England not Scotland so unsure on any differences regarding freedom to roam etc)
    However, I am aware that they spray their crops and as a total newbie wondered if this could be an issue.
    Thank you

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Lorraine

      I’ve never had any problems with spray poisoning, even when keeping my bees in reasonably intensively farmed areas (which I did for several years). I don’t think it’s anything like the issue it once was. I can’t remember others having problems either and the few instances when it was suspected it was usually chronic bee paralysis virus. I’m certainly not saying it doesn’t happen – perhaps I was just lucky?

      My bees on the east coast of Scotland are on the edge of mixed farmland and there appears to be relatively little spraying. On the west coast the land is not farmed … and it couldn’t get much wilder:

      Moidart hills

      However, when discussing things with landowners I would always make clear that they should contact me if they were going to be doing anything that might adversely affect the bees, or risk endangering the hives. I would sometimes have to move them at relatively short notice if they intended to plough up a wide field margin following a change in the subsidies available for set aside.

      Crop spraying is supposed to be regulated so it’s done when pollinating insects are not affected e.g. outside the flowering period. As long as the farmers follow the instructions you should be OK.

      Perhaps ask in your local association if spray losses have occurred in the area?

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  6. Jude New

    Thank you for this timely blog topic. The bees in my garden were blamed for every sting my neighbours children suffered, for the dog next door who might get stung and for swarms of bees which settled in parks when I knew that my hives hadn’t swarmed…
    I am currently looking for out apiary sites, I have had bees in the garden for over 10 years and I miss them, but an out apiary is definitely the way forward.
    I shall be using some of these ideas to set up afresh for this season and beyond!

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Jude

      I’m afraid that’s not an atypical experience. Sometimes it’s justified, often it isn’t. When I had a small suburban garden I always set out bait hives and never failed to catch swarms, often several a year. However, I’d always move them to an out apiary within a day or two of their arrival to avoid any problems with the neighbours. Although it’s not the same as a full, busy beehive, a bait hive can get a lot of attention from scout bees over the swarming season, so perhaps you’ll need to set one up instead.

      Good luck with the search for a new site.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  7. Michael Gates

    Hello David

    Murray McGregor’s question and answer session is available to view on the Scottish Beekeepers website. Well worth a look.
    Cheers, Michael

    Reply

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