How Many Hives To Start
How many hives should you start with?
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When getting started in beekeeping, a common question is, "How many hives should I start with?"
The average backyard hobbyist should always start with 2 or more. Why? With two hives, you can compare the hives to each other. Usually if both hives are acting the same way, it is a normal bee "thing". If one colony loses its queen, then you can place a frame of brood with 1-3 day old eggs from the other hive into your queenless hive and they will raise their own. And if one colony becomes weak, you can equalize the two hives by adding more bees to the weaker hive. With one hive these management practices are not possible.
Let me answer several questions that I am asked regarding the number of hives to begin with:
If I get more than one hive, will it require too much time?
How much time you dedicate to beekeeping is entirely up to you. The extremes are, you can do nothing more than install your package in the Spring and do nothing at all, to the other extreme of inspecting your hives every two weeks. A good management practice is to inspect you hives every two weeks. This should only take about 15 minutes per hive. So for two hives, that's only a hour a month. But, here's how it really works for a lot of folks just getting started in beekeeping. They love it so much, they are always in the hive, looking at it, pulling frames out and showing friends and relatives. I opened one hive 5 times in one day show interested people the inside of a hive. It does disrupt their activities, so it is best to limit your inspections to twice a month, but some new beekeepers can't stay out of the hive, because it is so much fun. And the disruption is worth the experience you get by opening up the hive. With the more hives you have, the more you can inspect different hives and enjoy your hobby more.
I once had a real nice motorcycle the kind you have to polished after every ride. I spent less time keeping 100 hives than keeping that motorcycle waxed! It really is manageable.
With several hives, will the bees from one hive be confused and not know where to go? Will the hives fight each other?
Bees keep to themselves pretty well. Each hive has a unique smell, to the bees, not to us. They will not bother other hives. As you can see by the snow picture above, I try to keep about 6-8 inches between my hives so that on windy days, they don't drift into the wrong box. Even if a few do, it is not a big deal.
Will they fight each other? No. They keep to their own business. In the fall, during a dearth of nectar, a very strong hive might try to rob a very weak hive. But through proper management this will not be an issue. Proper management means keeping hives equal and avoiding attracting bees to another hive by mishandling honey or honey supers in the weak hive. Don't work a weak hive for very long in late summer or early fall.
How close together can I place multiple hives?
I've had hives on pollination pallets which were only 3/4" a part from each other, 4 hives on a pallet. But I think 6 - 8 inches is a minimal. And if you have a bit more space, give them a foot or two. Don't place them too far a part or else you'll be walking too much to work them. I keep them close so I can go right down the line when I am working my hives. If you have more 4 or more, try to make a "U" shape bee yard, like a horseshoe shape apiary yard. This helps the bees identify their hive quickly and it provides a little wind break for landings and takeoffs.
Can too many hives in one area deplete the available nectar source?
I've heard people argue that too many hives in one area can cause a depletion in nectar in that area so that only the strong hives do well. That might be possible if you live in the middle of a desert with only a hand full of flowers within 12 miles.
Most of us live in areas where there is plenty of nectar sources. Bees are sharp when it comes to finding nectar. Just like we are sharp in finding food when we are hungry. You know where some good restaurants are and if you don't you know how to go out looking for that perfect steak house. Bees are even better than we are at finding food.
It is extremely important to remember that bees fly 2-3 miles out to gather nectar. I think some people think of bees as dogs, meaning that they think the bees will stay in their yard. Unless you have a huge yard, it is not' going to happen.
Now, let's say you live in town and you own a regular lot where beekeeping is permissible. Your bees will fly 2 to 3 miles around searching for nectar. One of my bee yards is located just on the edge of a city of 10,000 people. The bees fly straight up and out and late this summer they brought in a lot of alfalfa honey. They weren't getting this in town!
Within a 2 mile radius there are over 8,000 acres. A 3 mile radius includes over 12,000 acres of nectar to choose from! Wow!
Now, to better illustrate how much nectar is within a 3 mile radius, I've taken a satellite image of my home where I have about 30 hives. I have superimposed a circle that represents a 3 mile radius. Look at how much land that encompasses.
Even though I'm about 4-5 miles away from some towns near me, it's only about 3 miles the way the bee flies. And if you notice near the top of the picture, there is a large river that runs through the 3 mile radius which means lots of river bottom flowers even in dry weather.This is why many of our listings on Ebay lists two hives together. It just makes better practice to start with two or more hives. I started with one hive and through neglect it died off and since I had only one hive, I was out of beekeeping for several years. Now don't let me discourage you if you can only start with one hive. You can start with one and do great! You can add more and more hives as the years go by. And, your one hive may never die. Instead, you might get many splits from your first hive. You just never know. But, your chances of success are increased by the more hives you have.