Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Beginning Beekeeping: How To Set Up Your Apiary

My backyard apiary is covered in snow.
It may not look like it right now, but Spring is almost here. If you are expecting your first package or nuc this Spring, you probably already researched what is best for the bees:

  • Southern or South-Eastern exposure to encourage earlier and later flight
  • Full sun, so that the bees have the upper hand against SHB
  • Easy access for the beekeeper
  • Access to water and decent forage
For a lot of beekeepers the above usually translates into a backyard apiary. A cursory Google image search for backyard apiaries will reveal many bucolic pictures with beehives close to a back door or on a patio. I have to admit that even today those idealized images showing the Bee Whisperer's backyard have a certain draw. However, now I know better. My backyard apiary is far-away from the high-traffic spaces of our yard, behind a barn.

If you are planning on keeping bees in close proximity to other people and pets, your first and foremost goal should be to limit their interaction as much as possible and to make sure any close contact does not result in an injury.

 Bees in urban areas can become a nuisance in a hurry. They are naturally attracted to swimming pools. A strong hive hauling water in hot weather can prevent you or your neighbors from enjoying the backyard pool. In order to prevent this, you need to establish an alternative water source early in the season. For that you can use any water container such as a bird bath, an animal water through and add pebbles or float some straw or bark in order to make it safer for the bees.

Once your bees find a reliable water source, they will keep visiting it. This will work in your favor as long as you establish your water source before pool season starts and never, ever let it go dry.

In order to minimize stings, pay special attention to the traffic pattern from and to your hive. Foraging honey bees will fly in a straight line to their nectar source ("beeline"). If their traffic crosses a path, the inevitable collisions will result in stings when the foragers get tangled in clothing and hair. In order to minimize this, point the hive entrance to a blind wall or erect a small privacy fence.

All this precautions can seem silly or even an overkill in the Spring. After all, we have all seen all those videos of people installing packages with absolutely no protection and completing the follow-up inspection with nary a puff of smoke in sight. Some of us have even tried it - I know I did (and I won't be repeating it). And yes, it can be done on a beautiful day without a sting. However, there is a big difference between inspecting a newly installed package and an overwintered colony.

A package has no resources and is scrambling to get their brood nest established, build the necessary comb and collect pollen and honey in order to be able to survive. Protection is not among the most pressing issues facing a newly installed package. An established colony, on the other hand, will protect the area in front of its entrance. The stronger the colony is, the more resources it can spare for protection. The same package that let people and pets play right in front of the entrance in the Spring, will send out guards to investigate and head-butt observers in the Fall.

However, if you took the precautions in the Spring to minimize bee and human interactions in the Spring, you should have no issues in the Fall. Enjoy your hives and happy beekeeping!

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