THE FOLLOWING HAS BEEN UPDATED SINCE ORIGINALLY POSTED.
What follows is one way to move a Langstroth honey bee hive a short distance. Okay then… Here’s a rough map of our backyard:
The numbered squares represent hives. We moved Hive #1 to location 1a, gave the bees time to adjust to the new spot, then moved the hive to 1b, waited a few days again and then moved the hive to its final location at 1c. Each move was approximately 1 metre or 3 feet and we waited at least three days between moves. Essentially, that’s all you need to know for moving a hive a short distance. (There’s also a video at the bottom of this post.)
The 1947 edition of The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture suggests that moving a hive during a honey flow is bad news for the bees, but I spoke to a local beekeeper who said, “Don’t worry about it.” Other bee books recommend moving bees only at night, while some beekeepers I spoke to on various forums said they avoid handling bees at night because it’s disastrous when a hive topples over in the dark and it’s just not worth the risk. A master beekeeper told me she confines her bees in the hive for a full week before she moves them, but then a beekeeper with forty years experience said that’s crazy. So I gave up looking for the right way to move a hive because, as usual, I couldn’t find any consensus among beekeepers. But here are some of the salient points I’ve been able to distil from all of it:
● Move the hive either 1 metre (3 feet) or 5km (3 miles), but nothing in between. Honey bees moved to an entirely new environment outside their normal 5km flight radius will completely reorient themselves to the new location. Less than 5km and they will follow familiar landmarks back to the old location, then circle within a metre or so of that spot until they pick up the scent from their home colony — from madly scenting bees. More than a metre away and they probably won’t pick up the scent, and they’ll die. (P.S., Some beekeepers claim the bees will fly only 3km from the hive, or 1.9 miles. But distances well over 5km during nectar deaths are not unheard of. If I had to move a hive a far distance, I’d go past the 5km point just to be safe.)
● Honey bees have approximately a three-day memory. That’s why some beekeepers confine their bees for up to a week before moving them. The bees forget how to find their way back home in that time and will subsequently re-orient themselves to the hive the next time they go out the front door, whether the hive has been moved or not. (But I’m not an expert, so don’t quote me on any of this.) Check out the cloud of orientation flights the next time your bees have been stuck inside for a few days due to inclement weather. Anyway, it’s also why many foragers will continue to return to the old spot for a few days after the move. It’s also why…
● Wait at least three days before moving the hive again. We had to move our hive about 3 metres from the old location, which required three moves, 1 metre per move. We waited at least a week between moves to give the bees plenty of time to home in on the new location.
● An entrance obstacle like a tree branch helps orient the bees to the new location. From page 483 of XYZ: “…it is advisable to put up a board against the entrance just after moving, in order to arrest the attention of the bees when they come out. This forces them to mark their location anew.” We put a tree branch in front of the entrance after the second move so the bees would immediately notice it and have something new to home in on.
● Temporarily reduce the entrances to any nearby hives. I came up with this one on my own because, as shown in this photo taken shortly after we moved Hive #1, the hives are so close that the re-orientating bees could easily drift into the hive next door, which could result in a few unnecessary bee battles.
● Don’t be surprised if the whole colony seems to fill the air after the move. This is from me again. We’ve had to move Hive #1 a short distance three times this year, and hopefully we’ll never have to move it again. Every time we did it, though, the backyard was transformed into a loud, buzzing cloud of bees. It seems that every single forager will go back to the old spot and then begin circling in larger and larger circles looking for the new hive location. It can take several hours for the bees to settle into the new location and clear the air. Which is why…
● Don’t move the hive late in the day, because the bees will need a good two or three hours of warm sunshine to re-orient themselves to the new location. Moving the hive is a major disturbance for the colony. That’s also why…
● Move the hive and then stay away for the rest of the day. Leave the bees alone to sort things out themselves. They have finely tuned instincts for everything. It will look like total mayhem, but they can deal with it. Just don’t mess with them afterwards. Leave them alone for a week if you can.
I’ve read about other methods for moving bees. Some of them are just nuts. Others are so complicated, it makes me mad. Why do some beekeepers insist on transforming every little beekeeping activity into a convoluted project? Moving a honey bee hive a short distance isn’t much fun for the bees, but we’ve done it three times now and it’s not an elaborate procedure. We were careful not the move the hive more than a metre, and we gave the bees plenty of time between moves to home in on the new spot. We pulled a few frames from each box to make them lighter and easier to move (we also inspected the hive during one move), but that’s basically it. Transporting hives a long distance is another story and we don’t have any experience with it, so I can speak to it. But judging from the three times we’ve had to move a hive, what I’ve outlined in this post should be fine for most backyard beekeepers.
Is there anything I should correct or add to the list?
UPDATE (May 31/12): I had to move some hives again. This time about 50 feet or 15 metres. I was told by an experienced beekeeper that it wasn’t necessary to lock the bees up for three days, that keeping them confined to the hives for 24 hours and placing obstacles in front of the hive entrances would work just as well. Well, it didn’t. Many of the bees came back to their original hive locations and hung around on the old hive stands until they died from the cold overnight. So here are my new fool-proof rules for moving a hive more than 3 feet and less than 3 miles:
1) Lock the bees inside the hive for 3 days by putting mesh over all the entrances. Make sure the hives are well ventilated so they don’t cook if they’re in the sun for 3 days. (Ventilator rims don’t hurt.) Spray the entrances with water when you can to make sure they have enough drinking water too.
2) Place solid obstacles — like a piece of plywood, something the bees can’t ignore — in front of the bottom entrances after the move. Be safe and don’t remove the mesh from the top entrances for another couple days.
Locking up the bees for 3 days will cause them re-orient right away. Placing an obstacle in front of the entrance will compel them to or-orient as well. Done.