Well, it may seem a bit strange that I am sending you a topical tip about where and how you should site your beehive. However, January and February are the ideal time to review the best position in your garden or in your out apiary for your hive/s.
Currently we are still very close to the winter solstice (21st of December 2017) and that means that the sun is not very high in the sky (you will notice this is the case when you are driving because at this time of year it is easy to be blinded by the sunlight pouring into your car at a low angle).
What does this mean for the beekeeper? Winter sunshine playing on the side of your hive plays an important role in keeping the bees alive. For one it heats up the box and encourages the bees to raise brood once the temperatures increase; if you are to stand a chance of a spring crop, it is important that the bees raise brood early. It is only when you have got lots of foragers, that your colony will be able to collect you excess nectar and make you honey.
It also helps to dry out your hive after rainfall. In some years this is not an issue but currently we are experiencing quite high rainfall. Remember it is not cold that kills bees, but wet! A wet hive encourages fungal infections in the brood box and then the bees just will not prosper.
Why is it, then, I am sending you out this topical tip at such a miserable time of year? Well, it is precisely because it is such a miserable, cold, wet time of year that you are receiving this email. You should currently be checking your apiary once a week (I don’t always) and you will see how much sunshine is hitting the hive. With the sun at a low angle in the sky it may be that a hive placed underneath a tree is, in fact, receiving a lot of sunshine. That tree may also give shade to the hive in the summer when temperatures are much higher. Only you can know whether this is the case or not, because you are going back to that site or into your garden regularly.
The sun has little strength at this time of year and so it is important, particularly for a small colony, that sun is playing on the box. And not just for an hour! Three or four hours would be ideal. If you have a wooden hive, feel the side of the hive where the bees are, it will feel quite warm, particularly if the sun is out. If you put your ear to the hive wall, you will hear a very gentle buzz. If you hear nothing and are worried, tap on the side of the box and the bees will become louder (however, if you can hear nothing, then perhaps they have died).
If you don’t yet have a colony of bees, deciding on where to place them is something that you should be doing now. It is almost too late in April and May when the sun is so much higher in the sky. In those months you may be lulled into a false sense of security and will be unaware about the sunshine that is around in the depths of winter. In fact, you will be lulled into a false sense of security!
Another position to avoid at all costs is one in a dip. If water collects and there is not good drainage, the wet is going to be very bad for your colony. Just stand in the dip yourself. If it feels damp and cold, then the bees also will find it damp and cold. Sometimes positioning a hive on higher ground is the solution. However, if the site is very exposed and windy this also can be a problem and encourage drift between the colonies. It also makes the colonies colder due to wind chill. Some sort of shelter belt is really useful as it cuts down on the wind and cold.
Many of us, however, still keep bees in less than ideal sites. The secret to keeping bees in such situations is to keep strong colonies. Keith always says that for overwintering the best heating for bees is other bees. Lesley has one hive that is completely in the shade and doesn’t receive any sunshine from the end of December to early February. However she has a young, fertile, vigorous Queen and that is the one hive with pollen going into it. So everything isn’t black and white. However, believe me, sunshine is important.
A solution for such a difficult site, would be either to use poly hives or to have WBCs which have an outer shell. Peter Coxon’s hives are in a shady position but his bees do really well in WBCs. I dislike WBCs for all sorts of reasons but I do understand that for Peter they are the ideal solution and he gets really good honey crops.
In a garden situation, think carefully about shade cast by hedges and by sheds or outbuildings. One’s difficulty is that once the hive is in position it is very difficult to move it. In a very cold winter it is possible to move a hive after a very cold spell. Not the case this winter!
Another very important consideration is the space that you give yourself behind the beehive itself. You must be able to stand behind it easily and there must be room for you to place the roof onto the ground so that you can place any supers on top of that. People talk about having the frames the cold way or the warm way. If space is at a premium, and you are unable to have enough space behind the beehive, then you will have to have the frames the cold way and look through the brood box from the side. Choosing to place the frames the cold way in this situation will make your life much easier. You won’t have to twist each time you examine the frame – a killer for one’s back.
Think also about how close you want each beehive to be to each other. If you crowd them together, this can make them tetchy! And finally do consider how many beehives it is reasonable to keep in any one apiary. If you are in town, there will be other beehives near you and more beehives does not translate into more honey. Quite the opposite! Fewer, stronger colonies will give you more honey. Don’t have so many hives that you can’t even enjoy your own garden.!
I would also recommend not siting the hives too far from where you can park a car in an out apiary (lugging heavy supers over a long distance is not good) or too far from your kitchen if that is where you are going to do your extraction.
I leave you with a final thought. Christophe Gauthier had several hives at the edge of a woodland. His honey crop was not great, and so he decided the next year to move them some 10 foot out into the glade so that the sun hit the hives for longer during the day. It made a difference of about 30 kg of honey per hive over the course of the year. If you are struggling to get a good crop of honey, consider the positioning of your beehive.
Malcolm Wilkie 18th January 2018