Successful Hive Move Hinges on Preparation

Successful Hive Move Hinges on Preparation
Reading Time: 5 minutes

by Michele Ackerman The saying “even the best-laid plans sometimes go wrong” is not only fitting for life, but for apiaries, too.  When I started keeping bees, I had a vision for my apiary: a handful of pretty hives painted robin’s egg blue, perched on red brick stands, surrounded by flowers of all kinds. Today, I realize that dream will never happen. The apiary is constantly changing. Hives swarm. Hives die. Hives are split, and new equipment is purchased. And sometimes the hive needs to move. 

A hive move can be spurred for many reasons. Whatever the reason, relocating an established hive is not a simple act of picking up shop and moving, and a successful transplant requires thought and planning. 

Beekeepers abide by this rule of thumb: move a hive less than three feet or more than three miles.  

Bees have an internal GPS that tells them where home is. If “home” moves next door (less than three feet), it is close enough for bees to find when they come and go. If “home” is moved down the block and around the corner (more than three feet), bees cannot find it. If “home” is moved three miles away, bees will be forced to start from scratch and reprogram their GPS. 

Home Sweet Home 

Ideally, an apiary is situated in a sunny spot protected from inclement weather by natural vegetation or structures, on ground free of weeds and flooding. It is near abundant blooming plants and water and distant from grouchy neighbors and nosy critters. 

Though you may perfectly place a hive initially, the environment may change with time. Growing trees and shrubs may create dense shade. Cleared vegetation and structures may remove protection. Hive populations wax and wane. Neighbors and their pets come and go. 

Think Ahead 

When a hive needs to be relocated, consider these three questions: when will it be moved, where will it be moved, and how will it be moved. 

Regardless of distance and method, move a hive at the crack of dawn before bees stir and leave the hive to forage. You can also move the hive at night. Either option will ensure most bees are in the hive for the move and temperatures are relatively cool. 

Short Distances 

If moving the hive less than three feet, strap the baseboard, boxes, and covers together tightly using a ratchet tie-down. Lightly smoke the hive to encourage bees to move deep into the hive and remain calm. Place the hive on a dolly and carefully move it to its new location. Be sure the entrance faces the same direction. Keep in mind that bees adjust more easily to forward or backward hive moves than lateral ones. 

Place a large object, like a branch, over the entrance in a manner that forces bees to notice something different as they leave. This will help them recognize the new location. 

Some bees (foragers gathering supplies during the move) may return to the old site. Collect them in a box and move them to their new home if this happens. They will acclimate to the change when they next leave home. 

A New Zip Code 

To move a hive more than three miles, securely close all entrances before the move. Be sure to block the main, upper, and rear entrances and any cracks in the hive body. At the same time, provide sufficient ventilation as bees can overheat quickly. Strive to accomplish the entire move in an hour or less. 

If the hive has a screened bottom board, you can seal openings with solid materials. If not, you should seal them with materials that allow airflow, like mesh. Robbing screens that can be closed are ideal for hive moves as they allow ventilation and help bees protect their hive in the new location. 

When the openings are closed, strap the body together with one or two rachet tie-downs and move it to a pickup for transport. You can use a dolly to move the hive from the apiary to the vehicle. However, jostling a fragile hive over any length of rough terrain often leads to broken equipment and comb and very agitated bees. 

Use special tools beekeepers call “hive carriers.” Constructed from steel tubing, the tool hooks under box handles and enables two people to lift and carry a hive on foot. 

Hive carrier in use

Secure the hive in the pickup bed, drive to the new location, move it to its new spot, and open entrances. Set up and level hive stands beforehand to reduce the time bees are kept captive. 

Intermediate Distances 

A move of three feet and three miles is common for urban and small beekeepers who want to relocate a hive within the same apiary. To accomplish this, make incremental, three-foot moves over several days. Or move the hive more than three miles for at least three weeks and then move it back to its new spot in the apiary. This distance is recommended because bees often forage upwards of three miles for food and may become confused by familiar landmarks. If a hive moves beyond its landmarks, bees will have to reorientate.  

Theoretically, the creeping method can work for moves up to 30 feet, and often it is impractical due to constraints from structures and topography. Many beekeepers opt for the three miles method, enlisting the help of fellow beekeepers or friends eager to host the ladies for three weeks. 

After Care 

Strategic moves trigger bees to reorientate either gradually or all at once. They do this when they leave the hive, flying in small figure eight circles at the entrance, gathering information about landmarks and the sun’s direction. Their circles become more far-reaching, and then they fly away. This creates an internal honing device that they need not memorize again unless the environment changes. 

The hive’s visual cues and pheromones let bees know they are home, even among numerous, similar-looking hives. 

A hive move is a traumatic event, even when well planned. Workers will need to repair comb, seal cracks, and find new water and food sources. Hives may even abscond (swarm) or requeen. Keep an eye on the bees but allow them to do their business undisturbed 5-7 days and then resume inspections. 

Ratchet straps keep hives together for the move

After several hive moves, Mother Nature now dictates the look of my apiary. My traditional white hives are poised on bricks and cinder blocks that can be quickly moved on easily mulched and weeded ground. There is a different kind of beauty in going with the flow. 

Originally published in the April/May 2022 issue of Backyard Beekeeping and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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