February 2019 Introduction: The well-known rule for moving beehives is “3 feet or 3 miles” (3 metres or 5km), and it’s true most of the time. Move a hive more than 3 feet and the bees get disoriented and can’t find their way back to the hive. But move the hive more than 3 miles and they recognize right away that they’re no longer in Kansas and will automatically reorient to the new hive location.
But rules are kind of for dictators, don’t you think? I’ve heard about a little dictator where I live who likes to tell prospective beekeepers that they shouldn’t keep bees if the hives can’t be in full sun all day. That’s bunk. I’ve never kept my bees in full sunshine and they’re fine. In fact, the best colony I ever had, that produced 50kg of surplus honey for me, was a hive that was kept in the woods in the shade for most of the day. They weren’t the most docile bees I’ve ever seen (because some bees get cranky when temperatures drop for any reason), but who cares? I got out of their way, let them do their thing, and I got 100 pounds of honey out of them. Which pretty much kills the full sunshine “rule.”
The “3 feet or 3 miles” rule can be bent in many ways too. I’ve bent the rule when moving hives more than 3 feet within my backyard by moving the bees while it’s dark, when the bees are done flying around for the day, and then I block the top entrance and cover the bottom entrance with a branch from a spruce tree — something that immediately confuses the bees and disrupts their normal flight patterns. The next morning, the branch causes them to reorient to the hive and we’re done.
When I know that three or four days of bad weather are in the forecast, I’ll move a hive the night before the bad weather starts (or even during the bad weather). Honey bees usually have to reorient to the hive location if they haven’t foraged for more than three days. I place a branch in front of the hive entrance just be safe. But that usually works too.
I’ve also moved hives early in the morning on a sunny day. As long as other hives are close by, the disoriented bees have the rest of the day to find their way into a hive, maybe not their original hive, but they find a place to live. I’ve only done that a few times under desperate conditions. It wasn’t ideal, but it wasn’t catastrophic either.
This post from 2011 records the first time I tried moving a hive when I didn’t know all the fine details of the “rule” like I do now. Let’s see how it played out (I’ll jump in with extra info while I read through it all again)…
I did a full inspection of one of my hives today, the first inspection of the year. I also moved the hive to a new location a couple feet away, farther from a small walkway that cut too much into the bees’ flightpath.
That’s the hive on the left in the above photo, and the new location on the right. I didn’t use a smoker or a sugar spray bottle. The bees were disoriented but calm. It’s possible I could have done without my veil or gloves. But I’m not that lovey-dovey with the bees just yet. I’ll explain everything after the video.
Part 1: Inspecting all 20 frames and placing them in a new hive next to the old hive.
The frames from the original top brood box were filled with capped brood or open brood, with a few frames full of honey and pollen. They were placed in the bottom box of the new hive. The virtually empty frames from the original bottom brood box were placed in the new top brood box. Thus (if you’re following this), the brood boxes were effectively reversed, which supposedly helps to prevent swarming, the logic being that the queen prefers to move up into empty frames to lay her eggs. I’m not convinced it makes any difference. In nature, the queen will supposedly expand the brood nest wherever she can go, up or down. I reversed the brood boxes so the empty frames are on top only because that’s what most of the experienced beekeepers I spoke to told me to do. I’m still not sold on it, though.
- Update (May 06/11): For the record, here’s what I found on each frame from the top brood box: 1) Honey. 2) Honey, pollen and open brood, by which I mean uncapped larvae, little grubs curled up at the bottom of the cells. 3) Capped brood. 4) Open brood. 5) Open brood. 6) Capped and open brood. 7) Drone comb on a foundationless frame, moved to the edge of the box. 8) Honey on a foundationless frame. 9) Honey and pollen. 10) Honey and pollen. The comb from the frames in the bottom brood box were mostly empty. Some frames didn’t even have drawn comb on them.
This is my 2019 self jumping in again. Today if I found a full deep full of brood, honey and pollen in early May, I’d have no worries about that colony. I’d prefer to see something in the second deep as well, but there’s nothing wrong with what I found this day. Whatever I did during my first three years of beekeeping was right on the money. My spring colonies were always in fantastic shape. They were in such good shape that I experienced my first swarm in May 2012, which is early in the year for swarming in Newfoundland. And as for reversing the brood boxes, I said I wasn’t sold on it at the time, but I am now. I’m not sure if reversing the hive prevents swarming, but I don’t think it hurts, and I use it as an excuse to do a full inspection early in the year so I know exactly what I’m dealing with in each of my hives.
Besides looking for evidence of a healthy queen — which I found in several frames of solid brood at various stages of development — I also kept an eye out for swarm cells, or queen cells hanging off the bottom of the frames. There were none. Empty frames are often placed on the edges of the brood nest (the middle area of the hive where the queen lays her eggs) to prevent swarming. The empty frames, once comb has been built on them, will give the queen more room to lay eggs. And as long as the queen has enough room for laying, she won’t think about swarming (so I’m told). I didn’t place any empty frames on the edge of the brood nest because the entire top box is full of empty frames. That should keep her happy.
I didn’t enjoy trying to stuff in the tenth frame for each box. It was a tight fit both times and I can easily see how the queen could get rolled (and squished) between the frames in that situation. I plan to install follower boards to free up some of that space later this summer.
I would use follower boards if I could, but I find them too difficult to make. Maybe if I could make them out of a single piece of wood. At any rate, I plan to switch to 9-frame brood boxes this year (2019). That means I’ll let the bees start off the year with 10 frames in each box, but once the population begins to build up, I’ll reduce all boxes to 9 frames. The 9 frames are squished together so they’re centered in the box. It leaves space on the sides and makes it much easier to pull out the first frame during inspections and to put in the last frame after inspections. It’s more or less the same effect as a follower board, but without the follower board. It’s a common practice and I’m not sure why I didn’t pick up on it earlier.
Other thoughts about the inspection: Nothing. It all went smoothly. One half of the brood chamber (consisting of two deep boxes) was full of brood, honey and pollen. They’re off to a good start. I wasn’t surprised by the number of empty frames in the bottom box because the colony was started up late last July and barely had enough time to build and fill in all the comb they needed to survive the winter. The colony would have been dead if I hadn’t fed them sugar in January. There was no sign of pollen patties or sugar left in the hive.
I plan to feed them through a hive top feeder possibly for the rest of May, depending on how cold is stays and how many flowers begin to blossom. Then they’re on their own for the rest of the summer.
To be continued in… The Aftermath of Moving a Hive!