Choosing the best location for your beehives – Part 1

You can keep bees just about everywhere, at the edge of a forest, in the countryside, your own garden or even on your rooftop. Bees are very adaptable, however this does not mean we should carelessly place them anywhere. The better the spot, the better the well-being and honey production of the colony. So, what should you take into account when choosing a location?

This article is split up in two parts, in this first part we focus on the different aspects you have to consider when selecting a location. For example, how far do bees actually fly for food and how to keep a balance between the amount of bees and the available food sources. Also, what kind of regulations should you be aware of when you start with a new apiary? In the second article, we focus on what you can do at your particular location to make the life of your bees more comfortable.

To be clear, in this series we focus on beekeepers who intend to keep their bees at a fixed location. We therefore do not go into the topic of migratory beekeeping, as here the location depends on the collaboration between beekeepers and different landowners and/or farmers.

How far do honeybees fly for food?

There is no clear-cut answer to this question. If bees cannot find any food close-by they can fly up to even 10 km in search of food [1]. However, foraging this far cost lots of energy and bees naturally prefer to forage as close to the hive as possible. In practice, most of the foraging will be done within a 2 km radius of the hive [2,3]. However, this number is subject to a lot of factors, as during the season the location of food sources changes. So, in order to get a feel of where your bees might forage, simply pick up a map and draw a circle of 2 km around the location you have in mind. «Beepods» (a U.S. based beekeeping shop) has developed a useful online tool for this. As you can see in the image below, you can simply select your location and it will generate several circles (each 1 km or mile respectively). You can use it as a satellite view and now you have a clear idea what kind of areas (farms, community gardens, water ponds, urban areas etc.) are in the vicinity of your bees. Be aware that bees spend most of their time within a 2 km radius of the hive, so the first two circles are the most important.

Honey bee forager map, select your country, choose miles or kilometres and click on the spot where you consider placing your hive. Select «satellite» to view the type of vegetation your bees might encounter. In this example near the village of Brüten (Switzerland), you can see that the bees have a diversified food supply, in the first two circles (so a 2 km radius). There is forest, agricultural fields and urban areas. It could be good to check which kind of crops are grown and inform yourself about possible pesticides usage and flowering times. Courtesy of Beepods [4].
Honey bee forager map, select your country, choose miles or kilometres and click on the spot where you consider placing your hive. Select «satellite» to view the type of vegetation your bees might encounter. In this example near the village of Brüten (Switzerland), you can see that the bees have a diversified food supply, in the first two circles (so a 2 km radius). There is forest, agricultural fields and urban areas. It could be good to check which kind of crops are grown and inform yourself about possible pesticides usage and flowering times. Courtesy of Beepods [4].

However, the longer the flight, the more energy the bees spend and at some point the journey cost more energy then the bee actually collects. The effectiveness of a journey is not set in stone, as it depends on the distance to the food source, the competition with nearby colonies and the weather. To give you a general idea, honeybees who fly further then 1 km are seen as inefficient [5].

Water source

Besides nectar and pollen, bees also need a water source. Apart from drinking, bees also use water to cool the hive (read more about their thermoregulation here). On hot days one colony can use more than 3 litres of water. A water source should be close-by (maximal within 500 meter of the hive). Bees prefer slow moving streams or ponds, which they can access via a gently slope or some stones. A fast-flowing river itself will not work, as bees need to have a spot to land. However, often there is some spilled water at the river’s edge that can be accessed safely by bees and other insects.

Another option is to provide water by yourself, for example with a large bucket, however this needs constant refilling. Also, be sure that the water source is not directly in front of the hive entrance. Bees tend to defecate shortly after they leave the hive (we are talking of a distance about a few meters here), which could contaminate the water if it is in the flight path.

Small branches or stones in water puddles allows bees to drink without risking falling in.
Small branches or stones in water puddles allows bees to drink without risking falling in.

Honeybee colonies compete with each other and the available food sources should balance the amount of bees. Furthermore, the closer hives and apiaries are located to each other, the quicker diseases like varroa or foulbrood can spread.

To give you an idea, a distance of 500 meter minimum to other apiaries is advised. The ideal bee density is considered to be 1 colony per square kilometer (again, this can be subject to environmental conditions).

In Switzerland, every apiary has to be reported to the veterinary office and the so-called bee inspector. This means that the locations of all apiaries are collected and can be viewed in a so-called GIS-map (GIS = geographic information system). These maps are normally organised per state/canton (You can find these maps at the website of your local canton, for your convenience we have listed the links to these maps of various Swiss cantons at the end of the article). The imagine below is an example from the canton of Zürich. Contacting your local beekeeping association for some advice on distance with other apiaries is also never a bad idea.

Snapshot of the GIS-map of apiaries in the canton of Zürich. Note the red circles which indicates that these areas are affected with «European Foulbrood» or «American Foulbrood». Besides seeing other apiary, this map is also a useful tool in recognising diseases.
Snapshot of the GIS-map of apiaries in the canton of Zürich. Note the red circles which indicates that these areas are affected with «European Foulbrood» or «American Foulbrood». Besides seeing other apiary, this map is also a useful tool in recognising diseases.

In addition to other apiaries, one should also be aware of queen mating stations. In Switzerland there is a distinction between so-called A- and B-mating stations, the A-mating stations are for pure-bred honeybees, here apiaries have to be a at large distance to prevent drones from colonies from other (or mixed) races to interfere with the mating process. The B-mating stations are for mixed races, for these stations a distance of 3 km is advised. For more information on mating stations, contact your local bee association.

Property

Once you have found a spot where you believe there are enough food sources to go around and is at a sufficient distance to other apiaries you can get serious about setting up your hives. Now the question of property comes into play, if you are lucky you can place the hives on your own property (be aware that local authorities can also have regulations on setting up beehives at your own property, more on that in the section regulations). Often, the location you have in mind is someone else’s property. In this case, you have to ask for permission from the landowner. To increase the chances of a positive response, mention the benefits people get from bees, the additional value of pollination can be very valuable for farmers or community gardens. Companies could also allow beehives on their property, as supporting bees and pollination is a way to boost their brand recognition. Lastly, giving people some honey is always a good idea to get a favour!

Regulations in Switzerland

In Switzerland, each canton might have slightly different regulations regarding apiaries. Therefore, always check with your local authorities!

A new apiary has to be reported to the veterinary office and the so-called bee inspector of your region within 10 days. In general, you do not need a construction permit for single hive boxes, however you are required to inform all affected parties (neighbours, property owners, municipality). Further, the hive should be at least 10 meters away from a road or the border of your property. This is to avoid others to get in line of the flight path of your bees.

For a beehouse, you will need a building permit, which you can apply for with your local municipality. Some cantons like Zürich, St Gallen and Graubünden, might require proof that the applicant has completed a training as a beekeeper [6].

For more legal information for beekeepers, you can take a look at the Tierseuchenverordnung (TVS) or in English: Ordonnance on Animal Diseases.

Additional considerations for urban and rural areas

Urban

Urban areas can be a great environment for bees. Cities can offer plentiful and also diversified food sources. Various types of flowers, bushes and blossoming trees can be found in gardens and parks, which ensures bees of a nicely mixed food supply. However, finding a good location can be tricky, as you have to factor in the impact of bees on your neighbours.

Bees are sometimes seen as annoying insects which disturb pick nicks, so it is important to explain that bees are not that aggressive (make sure that your neighbours understand the difference between bees and wasps) and that bees in fact feed on blossoms instead of their pick nick. However, if someone is allergic you might consider a different location, as allergic reactions can be quite severe and close proximity to a hive can be a very unpleasant and stressful experience for people with an insect-allergy.

Finally, before you start dreaming about bees on your rooftop, check with your local authorities if there are any regulations about keeping bees in your city or town. It might be possible that in your municipality additional regulations exist, for example on the amount of hives or the distance to playgrounds.

Rural

In case your hives are located in rural areas make sure to check which crops are grown in the nearby fields. Are these crops which can be pollinated by bees and when are they flowering. It might be possible that most crops flower in a particular period and cause is so-called «nectar dearth» when these crops ceased flowering. If this is the case and there are not a lot of other food sources nearby, be sure to check on your colonies during this time. If necessary, leave enough honey reserves when you harvest, or give them some extra feed.

Another issues is the use of pesticides, try to get to know the farmers in the area and ask them which and when they are using pesticides. Discuss the issue of pesticides and try to look for solutions that work for both. For example spraying pesticides when it is dark ensures that no bees are flying around.

Conclusion

The location of your hives plays an important role in the well-being of your bees and we hope to have given you an idea where to start. There are many factors to take into account and if you feel a bit overwhelmed by this, ask an experienced beekeeper for help. In the next article, we take a look at what you can do, at your actual location, for example how to make optimal use of sunlight, prevent to much wind and more!

List of GIS-maps

Below you find a list of links to the GIS-map which show the location of bee hives in the respective canton. In case you can’t find your canton on this list, it might not be available (these changes over time, as more and more cantons expand their data collection), in this case it is best to contact the cantonal bee association for more information.


Literature

[1] Hagler, J. R., Mueller, S., Teuber, L. R., Machtley, S. A., & Van Deynze, A. (2011). Foraging range of honey bees, Apis mellifera, in alfalfa seed production fields. Journal of Insect Science, 11(1), 144.

[2] Osborne, J. L., Williams, I. H., Marshall, A. H., & Michaelson-Yeates, T. P. T. (2000, July). Pollination and gene flow in white clover, growing in a patchy habitat. In VIII International Symposium on Pollination-Pollination: Integrator of Crops and Native Plant Systems 561 (pp. 35-40).

[3] Pedersen, M. W., Bohart, G. E., Marble, V. L., Klostermeyer, E. C., & Hanson, C. H. (1972). Alfalfa: Science and Technology. Madison, Wis: American Society of Agronomy.

[4] Beepods, Honey Bee Forage Map. Retrieved from: https://www.beepods.com/honey-bee-forage-map/

[5] Gekeler, W. (2002): Bienenstände: beliebt und aktuell – Teil 4: Die Wahl des Standortes. Imkerfreund 01-2002, 10-12.

[6] Swegler, M. (2019) Baubewilligung für freistehende Magazine? Schweizerischen Bienen-Zeitung, Ausgabe 02/2019.

Vatorex, Felix Poelsma
27 November, 2019
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Choosing the best location for your beehives – Part 2
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