Designing the ideal apiary site

Posted on September 26, 2014

As hive numbers climb to in excess of half a million nationally, it is becoming increasingly apparent that there is a need for good wintering/spring sites to successfully winter bees and provide sufficient forage for them to build up in the spring. The task of successful beekeeping is to build up hives in the spring to around 60,000+ bees per hive by the time the honey flow comes on usually in November or December, in order to gather a good honey crop and provide pollination services where needed. Over the last 30 years, alot of valuable bee forage has given way to intense dairy production, riparian clearance, and weed clearance of such weeds as gorse, broom and some willows. While the land in question may ‘look cleaned up’ the results has been a green desert for pollinating insects. The loss of not only volumes of pollen and nectar sources, but equally as important, the loss of diversity of forage means that there is a now seasonal break in spring forage that interrupts the development of hives and prevents them from reaching their full potential, unless fed with supplementary diets. Diversity in forage also plays a vital part in maintaining bee immune response.

Farmers and Beekeepers can form a symbiotic relationship as they come to an understanding of each others needs.

Farmers are faced with the reality of having to fence off and plant their Riparian and Marginal land areas on their farms. In general, farmers view this as a cost with little opportunity for cost recovery.

On the other hand, beekeepers are looking for farm blocks with good areas of honey and pollen bearing species and good wintering sites for their hives.

So how can Farmers and Beekeepers work together?

Firstly farmers need to understand that bees are beneficial to their pastures. Bee pollination of clovers and grass species, greatly increases the seed set, pasture density and pasture recovery and in the case of clovers, increases the fertility of the soil through Nitrogen fixation. It is not easy putting a value on this, but it could be between $30-$70 per Ha. There are no feral bees nowadays so any bees on the pastures are from commercial beehives.

Secondly, if farmers plant species that produce higher valued honey and provide pollen all year round, beekeepers will more likely want to place hives on the farm.

Thirdly, if Farmers construct well designed wintering apiaries, along with reasonable plantings of better honey and pollen bearing species, beekeepers are more likely to offer a reasonable hive lease for the apiary sites and also share in the plant cost and apiary construction costs.

So what makes a good spring/wintering apiary site.

  1. Shelter from the south and west is number one. Bees cannot forage in strong winds and cold. Hives will starve as a result.
  2. Bees need sun and constant ambient temperatures that allow them to forage for longer periods of the year than in a shady site. Good air drainage comes into this as well.
  3. While we cannot live by bread alone it is even more important for bees for their immune response as well as for reliable sources of food especially when the weather is not so kind to them. It is important to have diversity and volume in bee friendly plant species. Species able to cope with some of the predicted extremes from climate change will become increasingly important.
  4. The ideal site should have a complete flowering calendar with no breaks in forage sources from early spring through summer and into autumn. Bees need food to build up in the spring and equally as vital, forage to provide stores and reserves in their bodies for the winter.
  5. With the establishment of varroa in New Zealand honey bees cannot now live without human intervention so it is vital for beekeepers to be able to access sites all year round in order to care for them. It is important to have good vehicle access to a site and ideally a firm dry base on which to place hives. Bees do poorly in damp sites.
  6. Wintering/spring sites should be away from houses and stock movement so as not to cause any nuisance. Ideally the site should be fenced off from livestock.

An ideal farm plantation should provide win/win solutions for both landowner and beekeeper alike. The economic benefits in receiving pasture pollination, shelter and shade for stock, clean water sources as well as looking aesthetically pleasing are drivers for landowner participation in farm plantings. There is also the personal satisfaction of doing ones bit to improve the environment.

A balanced plantation will provide forage and habitat for other pollinating insects as well as for honey bees. Bumblebees plus our range of native bees and birds are often over looked for the vital niches they fill. Design and planting should also accommodate them as well and provide a better environment for all native wild life.

Indeed the ideal farm plantation is a result of collaboration between landowner, beekeeper and plant nursery.

Written in conjunction with:

Barry Foster
Immediate Past President
National Beekeepers Association Inc.