Can I Raise Bees on Forest Land?

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Can I Raise Bees on Forest Land?

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Bill from Washington writes:

I am trying to decide whether I should try to keep bees on some forest land that I own. My concern is mostly about water. I only get up to the area about once every three weeks in the spring, summer, and fall, and less often in the winter. I don’t want to leave a large amount of water around because I know both yellow jackets and bold head wasps will take advantage of it being there too. I usually get stung by one or the other species around four times during the summer. There are too many nests on my land already, so I don’t want to encourage any more being made. My land is on the eastern slope of the Cascade Mountains, near Cle Elum, Washington. There we have hot summers and cold winters. 

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Rusty Burlew replies:

Hi Bill,

Your bees will most likely find water with no problem, even in the hot summer months. Honey bees are adept at finding seepages from hillsides, moist layers of moss, morning dew, and even traces of water in soil where another animal has been digging. Most of their water will come from nectar, and even in the driest areas, something is usually in bloom. In the worst dearths, the bees generally get water from their own honey supply.

You mention ongoing problems with yellow jackets and bald-faced wasps. I guarantee those social insects are getting water from somewhere, and that is how they persist year after year. To me, all those wasp colonies signal that water isn’t a limiting factor for social-insect survival. Your bees, too, will find similar sources. Remember also that honey bees will forage five miles or more for water if they need to, but they generally find it much closer.

All the hoopla you hear about providing water for bees is for a much different reason. Urban and suburban beekeepers must continually provide water to keep their bees from invading neighboring pools, hummingbird feeders, lawn sprinklers, drip hoses, flower pots, and pet bowls. Those beekeepers try to “train” their bees to drink from nearby sources to eliminate or prevent complaints from neighbors. It’s not that water is scarce, but it’s not the “right” water.

My recommendation is not to worry. I think your bees will do fine, just like the feral colonies that live in the woods with no “adult supervision.”

Bill replies:

Thank you for the quick, super informative response to my question regarding water and honey bees! I am really impressed by your knowledge and wisdom! You even answered questions I hadn’t thought of yet, but that round out the information I was looking for! 

I’m relieved to know that water won’t be a limiting issue for keeping honeybees in my location.  So on to my next concern which involves bears. There are black bears in the forests around Lake Cle Elum, where my forest land (15 acres) is located. My plan for locating a hive or two was to put them on top of a modified cargo container that I use as a cabin. It is eight feet high with smooth steel sides. I am assuming that the hives will be safe from bears getting at the hives with that arrangement. 

My new concern is whether I am putting myself in danger by luring bears with the smell of honey, right up to my cabin? My property is off-grid, so I have no electricity, therefore no way of using an electric fence, and locating the hives farther away from my cabin. I usually stay at my cabin for three days, about once every three to four weeks. So most likely, if a bear did come to investigate, I wouldn’t even be around. And maybe, once a bear realized it couldn’t get to the hives, it would not bother to investigate again.   

What do you think? Of course, I wouldn’t ask you to tell me what to do in this case, as that is a decision I will have to make for myself. But I would love to hear what insights and information you could share with me, that might shed some informed light on my concern.   

Thank you! 

Rusty replies:

I cannot predict bear behavior, but I can offer a few insights from experience. I keep my bees in black bear country and I’ve seen bears within a few hundred feet of my colonies. So far, after roughly 12 years in this location, they haven’t touched my hives.

My belief is that air currents and prevailing winds make a huge difference. The prevailing wind here passes over my hives and then goes down into a valley filled with houses instead of uphill into the forest where the bears live. If you are surrounded by forest, or if air currents go directly from your hives into the woods, the chance of a bear picking up the odor will be higher.

Bears always follow the scent. However, if they cannot reach your hives they will soon give up and go elsewhere. They are unlikely to keep trying if there is no reward for their efforts. However, depending on the density of bears in your area, you may see multiple attempts from multiple bears.

My hunch is that keeping beehives on your roof will slightly increase your chances of meeting a bear on your property. On the other hand, I think they are most likely to check it out when you’re not around, and after scouting the area a few times, they will probably leave and not return.

Whenever I’ve encountered a black bear in the forest, it has always turned tail and run. However, if a female has young, or if you get between a bear and a delicious treat, things could be different. My advice would to remain vigilant when visiting your cabin, and be careful not to corner a bear by giving it plenty of time and space to run away.

Finally, do not toss any hive debris onto the ground. When you scrape propolis, wax combs, or even bees out of your hive, collect them in a bag and take them away. Anything you toss on the ground will reward the bears and hasten their return.

It helps to remember that it’s not the smell of honey that attracts bears as much as the smell of brood.

Good luck, Bill!

Bill replies:

One last question, my land is accessible only by Forest Service roads, which are not plowed in the winter. Because of this, I can only reach my camp by
snowshoeing three miles, all uphill, in deep snow.  I usually don’t go up from December 1st until around February 1st.  Will the bees be OK with me not being there to provide supplemental food or to check on them? Thanks again for the great work you all do!

Rusty replies:

Without a crystal ball, I really can’t say whether your bees will be okay or not. The only thing you can do is prepare the colonies in advance. That means making sure they have enough honey or a combination of honey and winter feed, making sure varroa treatments were completed on time, making sure the bees stay dry inside the hive, making sure the queen is present and healthy,  making sure the bees show no sign of disease going into the winter, and wrapping the hives if you think they’ll need it. You’ve already considered the bears, so that’s one thing off your list.

Most colonies that die in winter die from either varroa or starvation, so those would be the items of greatest concern. Other things like queen loss, intrusion by animals, a tree smashing a hive, nosema disease, foulbrood, or dysentery cannot be predicted and you may not be able to do anything about them even if you were there.

So do your best preparation and then relax. Good luck!


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