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How Many Beehives for New Beekeepers?

One important challenge for beginner beekeepers is deciding how many beehives you need in your apiary? If you are going to do this beekeeping thing, you want to have enough to make it worthwhile. Yet, it’s no time to get in too far over your head and have a bee disaster. Of course there are some variables in regards to space, time and money when deciding on the size of your apiary.

Hive Numbers for Beginners

Number of 3 beehives in apiary for beginner image.

Beekeepers look forward to Spring and the awakening of their colonies. Some have ordered new bees and are in anticipation of their arrival.

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In this time, there are many decisions to make and things can feel a bit overwhelming. In fact, some of us become obsessed with the world of the honey bee.

And we focus on everything and anything that has to do with bees – quotes, sayings etc. The more the better right?

One of the first major concerns for new beekeepers is buying bees. But, before you place your bee order – you need to have an idea of how many beehives you want.

It is often possible to purchase more or you may catch a swarm. But, you do need a starting space. The number two is a popular amount thrown out by classes and experienced beekeepers.

Must a New Beekeeper Start with 2 Hives?

There are some compelling reasons to start out with at least 2 beehives for the new beekeeper. Over the years, I have seen many beginner beekeepers become discouraged and quit beekeeping-when their one colony died.

Most beekeeping classes recommend that the new beekeeper begin with 2 hives. In my online beekeeping class, I encourage my students to begin with 2 that first year. Though some folks are happy with only a single colony.

Beekeeping inspecting a frame of bees from colony image.

Most new beekeepers should not begin with more than 4 hives. However, 1 person could manage many more beehives with a lot of time to spare.

I once had 26 but I don’t recommend it. And, that was after I had several years of experience at that point. The best number of hives for your apiary may be different than that of a friend.

Can I Start Beekeeping with Only 1 Hive ?

Yes, of course you can start beekeeping with only 1 hive. I have know several beekeepers that began with only one.

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However, some of them faced struggles that might have been easier with a second colony in the apiary. A strong hive could share some good frames of brood to a colony in need.

If you lose a queen in one hive, the other colony may have a frame of nice bee eggs to share. This allows them to make a new queen.

That does not mean it is impossible to be happy with one hive. And, most of those who begin with a single purchase an additional hive or 2 the next season.

Benefits of Having More Than 1 Hive

Even with the best efforts, honey bees do not always thrive. Having more than 1 hive in the bee yard gives the beekeeper more resources to work with when a colony is having difficulty.

In addition to brood frames, young nurse bees themselves can be shared between colonies. Yes, their different pheromones may cause some fighting. But, spraying the bees with a light coat of sugar water before moving to a new hive helps promote peace.

Honey bee colony full of bees with a high population image.

With only 1 colony, how can you evaluate its progress? You have no other hives in the bee yard for comparison. Is the hive growing as it should?

Are the bees in your one hive building comb at a normal rate? Having 2 colonies provides a chance to compare.

No matter how many colonies you have, there will always be some individual differences. However, if one hive is going “gangbusters” and the one sitting next to it is not, we must wonder why. Perhaps, the difference is due to hive genetics or maybe there is a problem.

This is the time to perform a hive inspection and see if the queen bee is present and laying. Also to assess the bee brood pattern to look for signs of disease etc.

Making notes of your colony’s progress is important.  These notes from your beekeeping journal or notebook offer important learning opportunities from year to year.

Sharing Resources Between Hives

Why would a colony need resources from another? Even a good hive can have problems. Perhaps the bee colony swarms and is unable to re-queen itself. Or, the beekeeper may kill a queen during a hive inspection.

Brood, workers and even frames of honey or pollen can be shared among hives. This is called equalizing your colonies. It can be a good management tool but don’t swap frames around “willy-nilly”. Have a reason for doing it.

How many hives do you need to allow sharing of resources? At least 2 hives are needed. If you have 3 hives, that will give you even greater freedom to build up weaker hives.

Interestingly, some beekeepers would say that you should let weak colonies die. Sometimes, that may be true. However, I feel that not all weak hives are bad colonies.

A honey bee colony can have bad luck just like the rest of us. Adding some bee brood (young bees) to a struggling colony may be the boost that it needs.

4 colorful beehives on a stand in an apiary image.

Multiple Hives Increases Your Chance of Success

It doesn’t take a new beekeeper long to learn that beekeeping is not easy. Many experienced beekeepers lose colonies every year.

The first year of beekeeping is an exciting and frustrating time. If you have only 1 colony and it dies, you have zero bees.

That can be especially hard to take after all of your expense and effort. With another hive in place, you are not starting from scratch next season.

Your Beekeeping Budget

Beekeeping is not an inexpensive hobby. Most of you will need to buy bees. Honey bee colonies require some basic equipment and hive components to start. You may buy them ready to use or buy hive plans and build your own.

New beekeepers need protective clothing and other tools. Purchasing bees, equipment and protective wear can easily run into several hundred dollars to several thousand dollars.

When you are considering what is really needed, perhaps you should consider buying only the needed equipment and tools and invest a bit more money in that second hive.

As long as you have a bee smoker, hive tool and protective wear – do you really need every one of those little beekeeping gadgets that are on the market this year? Instead that money may be better invested in having a second hive of bees for your first season?

Yet, it’s no time to go “hog wild”. Your investment is better protected if you keep your hive numbers to a manageable number. Having too many hives to take care of is a recipe for disaster.

Large apiary with many beehives painted pink image.

Avoid Bad Hive Management

We must also consider the other end of the spectrum. Some new beekeepers start out being overly optimistic. With no beekeeping experience, they want to set up large bee yards with many hives.

This is a really sad situation for the new beekeeper and the bees. It is unfair and irresponsible to have more beehives than you can manage. But, that does not mean that most of us have not been in that position at some time over the years.

It is much better to begin with a couple of hive this first year. If things go well, 3-4 strong hives can be split into more next Spring. This avoids having to buy those colonies.

Trying to manage more than 4 hives without the help of a hands-on mentor is risky. It is much better to spend a year learning and enjoying your honey bee colonies. After successfully over-wintering a colony or two, you will be ready to grow your apiary.

If you only have the money and time for 1 beehive, go for it.  But, try to befriend some local beekeepers in your area so you will have some resources to draw on if you need help.

Proper management is the key to success no matter how many hives you have. And remember that 2 well managed colonies can easily out perform 6 unhealthy hives.

FAQs About the How Many Hives in Your Apiary

Does having multiple colonies cause fighting in the apiary?

Having multiple hives in the bee yard is not likely to cause a lot of problems among the colonies. Though you must be more watchful for honey bee robbing as your hive numbers grow.

Practice good beekeeping management by avoiding spilling sugar water in the bee yard. Don’t throw down chunks of burr comb or other hive debris.

If you feed a colony, feed everyone. It is only during times of a nectar shortage that the beekeeper really needs to be concerned about honey bee robbing behavior.

How close together can your place your beehives?

We are keeping hives much closer together than you would find in nature. However, hives can prosper when placed very close together as long as the beekeeper is consistent with keeping the yard clean and watching for robbing.

A good rule of thumb is 2 feet of clearance space on each side of a hive whenever possible. This reduces the episodes of “drifting” when foragers return to a different hive.

But, the biggest advantage of this spacing is giving the beekeeper room to work on all sides of the hive when needed.

How much time does having more hives require?

The needs and desires of each beekeeper will differ. How long it takes you to inspect 2 hives versus 1 hive depends in part on your technique. If you like to look at every bee on every frame, it will take you twice as long.

If you are only doing a quick check for problems, the addition of a second hive does not result in a lot more time. A couple of colonies help support each other and allow for twice the learning experience.

How many beehives per acre?

This is impossible to truly answer due to the variables. A region with season long rich nectar sources could provide food for hundreds of hives. The defining factor is the resources near the bee yard not the space itself.

For migratory beekeepers involved in agricultural pollination, some crops do need a certain number of hives to achieve good results. This is not a big factor for backyard beekeepers.