Inside: Hive placement can be tricky. You need to keep everyone happy, including you, your neighbors, and your bees.
Table of contents
- Worry about people and pets before bees
- Honey bees are free spirits
- Place hives so you can work from the back
- Stay away from doors and open windows
- Things that can go awry
- Think of those affected by your bees
- Even gentle bees have nasty spells
- Consider where your bees will drink and defecate
- Disregard myths about hive placement
Even before your first colony arrives, you have a critical decision to make: Where will you put your hive? It’s a tough choice. And it’s not made easier by all the rumors and myths that go along with it. So let’s separate what’s important and what’s not.
Worry about people and pets before bees
Nothing is more resilient than a honey bee. Honey bees adapt easily to many situations, unlike people and their pets.
Unfortunately, most new beekeepers worry about the bees more than they worry about their families or neighbors. Don’t do that. The last thing you want is complaints about your bees, fines, or lawsuits. It’s fairly easy to set up your hives correctly but difficult to fix trashed relationships. So let’s consider some practical matters.
Honey bees are free spirits
Honey bees have minds of their own. Sometimes, you cannot convince them of anything. Instead, they will go wherever they want, whenever they want, and do anything they want.
As beekeepers, we can only “suggest” behaviors. We give them boxes to live in, frames to nest in, and supers for storing honey. If we’re lucky, they play along. But just remember, they make the final decisions, and sometimes those choices are not especially helpful.
Learning to keep your colonies in line is part of becoming a beekeeper. Once you know what honey bees want and need, you can supply those things and they will usually behave. As I said, they are extremely adaptable.
Place hives so you can work from the back
Lots of people want to set their hives against a house, barn, or shed. It’s a tempting location because a building offers lots of protection for your bees. Tucked under an eave, a hive receives less rain, snow, and wind. Plus, if the building is heated—as is your home—the bees benefit from that, too.
The problem is beekeeper access. It’s best to tend your hives from the back, especially if you are new. The bees will use their front entrance, so working bees from the back of the hive keeps you clear of their flight path.
It’s possible to work them from the side, but it’s more difficult than you may think. It’s hard to reach across the hive to the other side, and if your hive backs against a building, you cannot get your varroa drawer in and out without altering the hive configuration.
Stay away from doors and open windows
Also, you shouldn’t put a hive close to a door or a window that opens. Even if the bees don’t bother you, they may bother family members, guests, delivery drivers, and mail carriers. Remember, too, that the bees’ direction of flight may change as forage plants go in and out of bloom.
And it’s not just your house. You don’t want to put a hive close to swing sets, sandboxes, horse paddocks, swimming pools, dog runs, sidewalks, trails, parks, bus stops, bicycle lanes, or shopping areas. This may seem like common sense, but when I’ve evaluated disputes between private citizens and beekeepers, more often than not I thought the beekeeper could have been more discreet.
By keeping your bees as far as possible from people, pets, and livestock, you will have a better beekeeping experience.
Things that can go awry
Yes, a surprising number of people worry about living near a beehive. A lot of them are truly wary of bees, so you need to cut them some slack. Perhaps they’ve read of people dying from “killer bees” or being hospitalized for anaphylaxis.
These situations are tough, but an entitled beekeeper can make them worse. Many of the disputes I’ve seen didn’t involve stings at all, but merely the thoughtless placement of hives.
I’ve seen beekeepers place their hives next to a fence with the entrance facing the neighbor’s house. The neighbors may think you’re protecting yourself by putting them in danger. Or a beekeeper may place a hive near a fence that’s 50 feet from his own house and just 20 feet from the neighbor’s house. The neighbor may read this as arrogant, thoughtless, or provocative. This is no way to start a new hobby.
Think of those affected by your bees
Too often, I’ve heard beekeepers say something stupid like, “It’s my property so I’ll put the hive wherever I want!” Yes, I get it. If it’s your property, perhaps you can put your hive anywhere you want (assuming you follow any setback requirements). But as a beekeeper, you don’t want that kind of relationship with a neighbor. Trust me on this.
For example, if your best colony swarms and lands in your neighbor’s apple tree, you’ll want permission to go fetch it. If you’ve been a horse’s backside from the beginning, you’re going to lose those bees, probably to a spray of pesticide. So don’t go there.
Put your hives in a place that works for everyone. Give the neighbors honey, candles, and the benefit of the doubt. As eager as you are to make everything perfect for your bees, it pays to be kinder than necessary to the neighbors.
Even gentle bees have nasty spells
The temperament of a colony can fluctuate throughout the year. Bees that are gentle when the nectar is flowing can get nasty and defensive when the flowers dry up. This is normal, and those uptight bees will usually calm down again when the fall nectar flow begins.
Shifting dispositions offer another good reason to keep hives away from people. If we set the hives away from foot traffic, slight changes in disposition may go unnoticed.
Consider where your bees will drink and defecate
These two items cause most neighbor problems. People don’t want bees crawling all over their pool decks, and they don’t want gleaming globs of bee poop on their lawn chairs and picnic tables.
Most beekeepers never consider these two problems until after they happen. And, unfortunately, it’s difficult to potty train a hive of bees.
As for water, it’s best to provide a water source before your bees arrive. They will choose water close to the hive if you provide it. But if you don’t, they will go further afield and perhaps use a local pool. Once they’ve selected a source, however, it’s nearly impossible to break the habit. So remember one thing: water before bees.
As for poop, the further away the hive is from your neighbors, the better. The bees will defecate soon after they leave the hive, so the extra distance is a plus. Also, as you get further from a hive, the bees are more spread out, making the number of yellow spots seem less. See “How the inverse square law governs the distribution of bee poop” for an explanation.
Disregard myths about hive placement
There are legions of rules about hive placement that are not at all critical. For example, your hives don’t need to be in direct sun, the entrance doesn’t need to face southeast, and its elevation doesn’t matter.
These rules can help if every teaspoon of honey is vital. But for the backyard beekeeper, it’s better to raise healthy bees in a way that appeases your family and your neighbors. Many of the hive placement rules come from commercial beekeepers who need to maximize profits. They need to keep the bees working from sunup to sundown in order to make the mortgage and the car payment.
But those rules have little to do with healthy, happy bees. When bees select their own homes in the wild, they usually pick shaded areas near the edge of a forest. The entrances are wherever they are, and the brood nest may be in the ground or 40 feet in the air. It’s easy to get confused between what they want and what we want.
Careful placement of your hives and consideration for others will go a long way to making beekeeping an exciting and rewarding hobby for years to come.
Honey Bee Suite
Spring is coming: Don’t forget to plant some lovage for your bees!
You seem like such a reasonable person, unlike me.
If you-potential-beekeeper aren’t on good terms with your neighbors before you get bees, DON’T get bees, because you most certainly will be on even worse terms afterward.
I am fortunate that I can’t actually see my neighbors for the trees, which helps tremendously with how well we get along. My first home was on a lot 100 feet by 150 feet, with shrubbery rather than forest, and I would not have wanted to try beekeeping there, though it might have worked for those of you with better social skills.
I’m totally unreasonable most of the time.
But I do agree that if you’re not getting along before bees, you certainly won’t be getting along once they arrive. The neighbors will be “deathly allergic,” guaranteed.
You two crack me up! GR is your best foil by far.
Tis funny how often I read about working from the back of a hive, and “Never wear Black”. Rick and I work in shorts, in tandem usually—one in front, the other at back. Teamwork, to lift heavy supers is wonderful. True, my “black” shorts are “cargo” with ties at the knees. They sometimes bounce off my legs, but almost never get stung on legs.
Unless, of course, tis an Africanised swarm, when 150% protection is needed. My first 25 years keeping were in S Africa, with the real McCoy, and our gear was much better than any in USA. Gloves were twice the thickness.
My entire bee suit is camo and it never gives me a problem.
You’ve given some terrific suggestions. Additionally, new beekeepers should consider that honey is heavy! Make sure you can access your hives with a car, truck, wagon or wheelbarrow. Slopes are ok for bees. Not good for the beekeeper. Allow enough room to expand. That is a problem I encountered. Finally, tall hive stands are helpful to do inspections on new colonies, but if your hives are successful and you end up with several supers, you may end up needing a step ladder which is not optimal for working on your colonies.
All of your suggestions are excellent. Thank you for writing.
And unfortunately, sometimes they need to be moved even after many years in a good spot.
I had my bees on a nice sunny southern exposure slope at my sister’s house in her back orchard. A perfect place – until my brother-in-law actually did become very allergic to stings. Well, rats!
The bees all came to my backyard. They moved about 5 miles as the crow flies but now are in the woods on a north-facing hillside. Seems they moved 2 climate zones between the two locations.
But as you say they are adaptable. They make honey here too. I just needed to change some of my management due to their needs. And now it is actually easier for me with respect to moving equipment around as they are just down the hill not a short car ride away.
Wish we humans all were as flexible as the bees …..
I know you’ve written about moving hives before but here is my hint/tip on moving a hive if your readers find they need to relocate their hive to a new location.
Average Joe Beekeeper Hint 21-26: Moving Hives 3 inches or 3 Miles – An Alternative View [035/abf2147] (previously published on the American Beekeeping Federation (ABF) Facebook Page)
There is an old adage that you can either move a hive 3 inches or 3 miles otherwise the bees will go back to the old location…
Many beekeepers claim that by placing grass or branches in front of the hive opening, one can “force” the bees to reorient to the new location. But many folks report that this does not seem to work consistently. My suspicion or theory is that although it would appear to us that the grass and branches are blocking the bee’s front view from the landing board, the small spaces we cannot discern still provide a bee’s eye view of the familiar landmarks in front of the hive.
If the bees can see their landmarks, they have no need to reorient. If the hive is moved, the bees will still navigate to what they perceive to be their hive’s location which is the old location.
To overcome the possibility of seeing through the grass & branches, I simply create a “view block” out of a scrap piece of cardboard. I cut the cardboard to a rectangle of about 24 inches by 5 inches and fold the ends creating a flap on each side about 4 inches long leaving a front “wall” about 16 inches wide. A couple of pieces of duct tape secure the flaps to the hive side (see the photo on right). When the bees are “locked” into their hive with an entrance reducer the night before a move I add the cardboard view block. Upon moving the hive and removing the entrance reducer, the bees coming out of the hive cannot see anything but the cardboard wall. Without familiar landmarks in front of them, they will reorient thus locking in their current location.
I have performed moves of inches, feet, yards, or even ¼ to ½ mile distances numerous times (20+) every season for several years now and the bees always seem to reorient to the new location with none of the bees congregating at the previous hive location… Others who have tried this method report similar hive movement success so try it, it might assist you in moving hives!
No comment on working from the front?? And camo is not black!!
No, camo is not black, but it’s not white either. In fact, it’s very dark and doesn’t show propolis stains, which is what I like.
What’s to say? I’ve done it, it’s not my favorite place, but it works in a pinch.
You should have zero problem in a full suit, if I can work in shorts, t-shirt and veil. Recently a hive got nasty so changed to long sleeve veil but still shorts. No problem. My experience is that EU bees go for the head while Scut attacks everywhere.
As is plainly obvious, this post was written for new beekeepers. I would never recommend that “virgin” beekeepers work in front of a hive because they are not accustomed to honey bees and how they behave. I’m not changing that recommendation. Once beekeepers are used to working with bees, they can do it any way they please. But in order to keep people from quitting in the early years, it is better for them to begin with protocols that are not overly scary.
I’m not writing for me here, nor am I writing for you. “To quote myself from above, “It’s best to tend your hives from the back, especially if you are new.”
You are trying my patience.
I am sorry I annoyed you, and I missed the “if you are new.” However, it really bugs me when old hands, like us, say things like “you must do it this way,” or “not this way.” The two most common are black clothes and working in front, both of which are total baloney. If they are nice, like most EU, no problem. If nasty, they will get you somehow.
Since 2009, over 13 years, the premise of this site has been to give people options, not directives. In my post above, I say, “It’s best to tend your hives from the back, especially if you are new. The bees will use their front entrance, so working bees from the back of the hive keeps you clear of their flight path.” There is nothing about that statement that says, “You must do it this way,” and there is nothing in that statement that is untrue.
I think it’s time you move on to another website and find someone else to bug.
I am reminded of this tongue-in-cheek rule from spelling and grammar classes – “Every rule has an exception, except the rule that says ‘every rule has an exception’.” Sounds like Derek always works his bees a certain way — except when he doesn’t — and we should all work our bees that way, too — except that old hands shouldn’t give absolute rules.
I’ve only been at this a few years, but it’s amazing how many rigid (and contradictory) rules exist, along with their myriad exceptions. One of the many, many things I like about your site is that you are so nuanced. Don’t ever change!
Thank you. I like to think that colonies are like children: all different. Universal rules seldom apply.
Btw, your grammar rule reminds me of another mind-bending piece of advice: “Moderation in all things, including moderation.”
“Everything to excess. Moderation is for monks.”
–Robert A Heinlein–or at least one of his characters
You might enjoy my podcast