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Do You Have Too Many Beehives in Your Apiary?

Beekeepers love their bees and in the beginning it seems we just can’t have enough.  The idea of expanding our apiary is a noble one and filled with much excitement.  However for some beekeepers, the question eventually arises – can you have too many beehives?  How much is enough and what can you do to solve the problem.

Large number of beehives in apiary image.

Can You Have too Many Beehives & What to Do

Keeping honey bees is much different than managing other forms of wildlife.  If you put out 5 bird houses, you may have 5 bird families take up residence.  And with livestock, if you only have room for 10 cows, you simply avoid breeding more.

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However, managing honey bee colonies is quite different.  Unlike the bird families that raise young and leave, the bee colony maintains a year round home in one spot.

The population of a honey bee colony is cyclic.  It ebbs and flows with the season.  Going from a smaller population in later Winter to a raging hive of 50,000 or more during the height of Summer. 

Large number of beehives in apiary image.

How do bees control this crowding situation? They often cast a swarm.  Honey bee swarming is natural reproduction on the colony level. 

This is how bees spread colonies across an area.  About half the hive population leaves to form a new home elsewhere.

While beekeepers often attempt to prevent honey bee swarming, it is a true fight against nature.  The colony that swarms may produce less or no honey that year – depending on local conditions.  Most beekeepers hope to harvest honey at some point so swarms are not so desirable.

In spite of our best efforts, the colony often does swarm.  And being beekeepers, we have to try to catch it right?  Not every swarm is retrieved but many are and it can be quite entertaining to harvest a swarm from a tree.

Beekeepers also put out swarm traps or bait hives to catch wayward swarms.  And, aren’t we delighted when we catch a wild swarm that didn’t come from our hives!!!  Yay, we have another hive of bees.

All of this is very exciting and wonderful until you look at your beeyard and think – hmmm do I have too many hives?

Larger number of beehives in one apiary requires more space image.

How Many Hives Should a Beekeeper Have?

In most beginner beekeeping clases (for sure in my class), we encourage new beekeepers to start with 2 hives.  In spite of the extra expense, there are many reasons to have more than one colony. 

The  biggest advantages are that it allows resources to be shared between the two hives and if one dies, the new beekeeper is not left without any bees.

However, it can be just as big a problem for a beekeeper who only wanted 2 hives to end up with 12.  We good-naturedly joke about this phenome of having too many hives. 

But, it happens to most beekeepers at some point.  We can quickly go from – I wish I had another to OMG what am I going to do with these bees.

So what is the perfect number of honey bee colonies to have?  That number is different for each beekeeper.  It is calculated using your allotment of time and money to care for the bees.  And also, your beekeeping goals. 

If you want to start a bee farm or beekeeping business with hopes of selling a bit of honey and bee products, you need a plan for managing more hives. A backyard beekeeper wanting to produce honey for the family or aid in pollination only needs a couple.

A couple of beehives in a backyard space during inspection image.

Problems of Having Too Many Bee Colonies

While it might seem that more is always better – that is certainly not the case in reference to bees. If your hive numbers get out of hand you may experience a myriad of problems.

  • Violation of local regulations
  • Complaints from neighbors
  • No budget for needed equipment
  • Unable to give bees health treatments due to time or money
  • Small colonies with sick bees

Some beekeepers live in areas where they are only allowed to have a maximum number of beehives in their backyard.  If your local regulations call for no more than 2 and you have 10, this could lead to trouble and the possibility of being asked to move all your beehives.

The more colonies you have, the more bees will be in the local vicinity, this means more bees looking for water, pooping on vehicles, swarming etc.

Beekeeping equipment is not cheap-especially when you are to purchase extras for more hives.  This is an item that needs to be budgeted.  In addition to the basic hive configuration, you need boxes for a honey harvest etc.

All too often, the beekeeper ends up with more boxes than bees.  Unless you are queen rearing, you probably don’t need a lot of small colonies. 

Lack of time to give each colony the attention it needs may result in hives that are not productive and growing. 

This is the syndrome of having 10 beehives with only enough bee population to make up 5 good hives.  It is a waste of your time and resources.

Also if the beekeeper has more hives than he/she can manage properly, sickness and poor health is sure to be a factor. 

Sick mite infested colonies can cause the infection of the healthy hives in the bee yard.  This leads to overall poor apiary health.  No good for anyone.

Beekeeper inspecting all hives in the apiary with bee smoker image.

Steps to Avoid Having Too Many Hives

At times, most beekeepers do end up with too many colonies for their space, time or budget.  In this case, it is best to sell the extras. 

Or if Fall is approaching, keep your best colonies headed by the best queens and combine the smaller healthy ones together. Reduce your hive numbers.

Because colony population will rise and fall seasonally, try some swarm prevention techniques to at least reduce swarming in your bee yard. When colonies do swarm, you have 2 options. 

Let the swarm go (very difficult for beekeepers – I know) or call another beekeeper to collect it.  Then, watch the mother hive to make sure they are able to successfully requeen themselves.

Or the second option, catch the swarm if you can safely.  Place it into a small nuc box (if it is not too large) and care for it for 3 weeks or so.  Feed the swarm and give the colony time to get a start with new brood to be emerging.

Now, sell this small starter colony.  Set a price that is fair in your area for a started swarm with some frames of comb, brood and a laying queen. 

Be sure to cover your costs of frames, foundation, feed etc – but don’t price it too high, if the swarm had gotten away you would have made nothing.

When selling a started swarm in this way, you can purchase on of those small cardboard nuc boxes you see online and house the colony in it the day before the buyer arrives.

Or you can ask the buyer to bring their own hive.  This is how I got my first colony of bees.  The buyer brings a empty hive (with 5 frames) to your home right before dark. 

Sit it right beside your starter colony and move the bees and frames in it.  Once darkness arrives, the bees are ready to close the front and go to their new home.

Final Thoughts on How Many Beehives are Too Many

Now I know you are going to say, you can never have too many hives.  We all feel this way to a degree.  However, the reality is that you can have too many beehives to give proper care.  And in the world of beekeeping, our major goal should always be to- be a good keeper of the bees.

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