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How to Set Up an Apiary (Bee Yard)

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Once you make the decision to become a beekeeper, it’s time to think about a good spot for your hives. You need to learn how to set up an apiary for your bees. This should be done well in advance of bee arrival. Comfort for the beekeeper is important but the needs of the bees must have first priority. Hives can be moved but it is always best to choose a permanent home in the beginning.

Setting Up an Apiary for Your Bees

Beehives set up in backyard bee yard or apiary image.

Let’s start by understanding a little beekeeping terminology. Beekeepers often use the word – “bee yard” to describe a location with beehives.

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However, the word “apiary” is the official term for your hives location. Whether you have 1 beehive or 100, a well designed bee yard, or apiary, makes life easier.

It is easy to become so involved with buying equipment and ordering bees, that we don’t put enough focus on where all this stuff needs to go.

Setting up a bee yard properly includes the overall layout and location. But, it also includes considering how the individual hives will be placed.

While this may seem like a small issue, it is actually important. It is hard to be a good beekeeper unless you can get to the hives for management purposes.

Several beehives on stand in backyard apiary image.

Bee Apiary Designs

While it might be handy to have an outline of the perfect apiary design, it would not work for most beekeepers. We all have different challenges to overcome. Most beekeepers do not have large fields of unlimited space.

Instead, we must consider nearby neighbors, play areas, rounds and even our own homes in deciding on the best location for our hives.

A good apiary design provides a healthy, safe place for the bees and is easy for the beekeeper to get to in all weather.

Apiary Must Be Accessible

Almost everything associated with beekeeping is heavy. Place your bee yard in an accessible location. You need to be able to get to your hives with a truck or wheelbarrow even in rainy or snow weather.

However, if your city practices mosquito spraying by truck, protect your bees by placing the hives father away from the road.

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Large black bear bee yard predator image.

Protect Your Bees from Predators

So many times, I hear beekeepers say they have never seen bears in their area. Then, they awake to find their hives destroyed. 

Black bears are attracted to hives and will destroy them. This is especially true if the bear has had access to hives in the past.

While the bear certainly will walk right up to your back door, it is a good practice to keep hives farther away from the tree line in bear country.

The best way to deal with a bear is to prevent destruction from happening in the first place. It is very hard to stop a determined bear!

In my area, the most common bear deterrent is an electric fence. Those of us who live in “bear territory” have to deal with this reality when deciding how to set up a bee yard.  

Wind Breaks or Privacy Screens

For a small bee yard, screening the hives from the view of neighbors might be a good idea. A tall decorative fence placed several feet from the beehives is common.

Bees leave the hive and go up and out into the world. The fence conceals the hives and redirects their flight path. We can’t control where the bees fly.

But, we have some control when they first leave the hive. A steady stream of bees buzzing across a walkway will cause concern.

You and I may be super proud that we are beekeeping but not everyone is “bee loving”. Simply having your  beehives out of site will ease some of your neighbors fear.

Bees leaving a beehive on a pallet in an apiary image.

Hive Placement In the Bee Yard

In designing your bee yard layout, you need to consider the basic needs of each individual colony too. Proper beehive placement is a big factor in the health and productivity of your honey bee colonies.

Every hive needs to sit in a place that is healthy. Low lying boggy locations near rivers or streams is not the best location for an apiary. Is the ground level or suitable to leveling for the hives to sit securely?

Because of the annual population curve of a healthy colony, hive numbers in an apiary do not usually remain static. A new beekeeper who wants 4 hives may end up with 8 by the end of Summer due to swarming etc.

Beekeepers who have too many hives can become overwhelmed. This can lead to having hives placed in unstable conditions or sickly hives that are a danger to other bees in the area.

There are several different types of beehives. Most beekeepers begin with one but may yearn to try others in the future.

Most hive types grow vertically (such as the Langstroth Hive, Warre Hives etc.). However, a top bar hive has different space requirements.

Lining Up the Hives

For years, beekeepers placed hives in a single straight row. We have learned over the years that this apiary design is not best for the bees.

Worker foragers will drift to other hives. When your beehives are arranged in a long line, the hives on the ends tend to benefit from drifting bees.

Foragers returning with full loads of nectar often enter the first hive they approach. Inversely, hives in the middle may lose substantial numbers. Rather than a straight line, placing hives in a curved formation helps reduce drifting bees. 

If your hives are in a line, don’t panic – there is no need to go out there and start moving them around. There are other things you can do to reduce drifting.

I paint my colonies different colors to help returning bees. Perhaps a few shrubs or decorations in the bee yard are beneficial to help working foragers orient.

You can also use cute vinyl stickers that last for several years on the front of the hives to help bees return to the right home.

Setting Up Your Bee Yard on Hive Stands

Commercial beekeepers place hives on square wooden pallets. This allows the use of machinery to lift several hives at one time. The whole bee yard can be moved to a new location in a short time.

Backyard beekeepers tend to use hive stands. Hive stands can be made from a variety of materials.

And of course you can purchase commercial stands for beehives that are ready to go. These plastic ones are sturdy though I wish they were taller.

Hive stands raise the beehives up off the ground. This provides some protection for the bottom of the hive and is a “back saver” for the beekeeper.

Being a Good Beekeeper Neighbor

Now, we must talk about a few things about having beehives that you need to know. These issues can cause big trouble with neighbors or even your significant other-who many not be quite as a big a bee lover as you.

It goes without saying that you should place individual hives facing away from human traffic or play areas. The bees need to live in peace and not feel threatened by people or animals in close proximity to the hive.

Bee Poop

You haven’t ever seen honey bee poop? Well, you will. The more colonies you have in your bee yard, the more yellow streaks you will find on your cars.

One of my beekeeping friends experienced an irate neighbor. She was angry because of bee poop on her clean laundry that she hung on the outside line. Four hives were about 30 feet away and faced her property.

With a couple of hives, you probably will not notice much of an issue. However, this is another reason to place large bee yards well away from humans. 

Honey Bees and Swimming Pools

In most locations, it is advisable for the beekeeper to provide a clean water source for bees. This water source should be established before your bees arrives.

And, it should be closer to the hive than your neighbors swimming pool. Honey bees love to drink from swimming pools and if it is a saltwater pool – they like it even better.

Keeping bees away from pools can be a challenge. Try to stop it before it begins.

Bee yard with hives arranged in circles image.
Beehive with red painted near entrance to aid bees image.

Long Term Goals for Your Apiary

When we consider setting up an apiary, we must think of our long term goals. Most beekeepers end up with more hives than they planned to have. (Yep, that’s me).  

Beehives can be moved with care. But it is much better to chose a good placement and bee yard layout in the beginning.

Decide how many hives you plan to keep and add some additional space. A well designed  bee yard makes working your colonies much easier. 

Create a place for the bees to thrive and one that you and your neighbors can live with. Don’t worry if you want to change your apiary design later. 

We all do it. But, taking the time to consider some of these issues makes setting up your bee yard easier and likely to fit your needs for a longer time.

FAQs About Bee Yard Setup

How Many Hives Can I Have in One Yard?

In addition to physical space and neighborhood concerns, having too many beehives in one bee yard can cause a foraging deficit. This results in more work for the beekeeper and honestly a lack of good nutrition for the bees.

Most locations have times of less nectar availability or even a nectar dearth. More bees in one general area means more competition for food sources.

If you find yourself needing to feed hives during the time of year when lots of nectar producing plants are in bloom, you have too many bees in one foraging location.

Feeding bees in times of need is a good management practice. However, your bees will be happier and healthier if you do not over-stock your yard.

Why Multiple Hives are Kept in 1 Location

No matter how well the apiary design, modern bee yards are not natural. In nature, you do not find several honey bee colonies living within close proximity.

However, most beekeepers do not have the luxury of providing at least a square mile of space between each hive. Also, managing hives spread out that far would be logistical nightmare and take a long time.

For commercial beekeepers that have large bee yards for pollination or honey production, time is money. They must be able to move hundreds of hives in a matter of hours.

Having multiple beehives in one location is not a bad thing as long as you do not overstock the yard. And, provide food for the bees in case of extreme food shortages.

How Far Apart to Place Hives?

I leave at least 2 feet between my beehives. This spacing is not done for the bees it is for me. If you have one side of the hive that you think you will never need access to, trust me, you will.

Place your hives in a manner that allows you to access all 4 sides with ease. Ask yourself this question? Could you reach all the sides and life a 50-pound box from there if you needed to do so? 

How Much Space Does Your Apiary Require?

This is home base for your honey bee colonies and you will spend a lot of time here. The more hives you keep, the larger your bee yard should be-in general. Finding a spot for a couple of hives is easier than finding room for 20 hives.

You have considerations beyond just space – or room to set down a hive. Will your foraging bees cause problems for neighbors? Will you have enough room to work the hives?

Those of you with many hives will face some challenges that small beekeepers don’t have to worry about. Ten beehives in the back yard means there is more of a chance of a swarm happening in your neighbors tree.

As a general rule, you should have 10-30 feet of open space around the perimeter of your line of beehives. Especially at the front.

The temperament of a honey bee hive changes from time to time. Those sweet bees in April might chase you around the yard in September. Aggressive Fall hives can be frustrating.

This is even more important for urban beekeepers with hives in close proximity to neighbors. Be sure to put hives a safe distance from your house.