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How Many Beehives Can 1 Person Manage?

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 most beekeepers, the question eventually arises – how many beehives can 1 person manage – well!

Can You Have too Many Beehives?

Number of beehives in one apiary.

The key to our dilemma of deciding how many hives to have in our backyard is remembering the primary goal. Beekeepers keep bees in a desire to reap the benefits of having a hive. However, we also understand the need to have healthy productive hives.

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Keeping the largest number of hives in your apiary should not be the goal. Instead, most of us want strong, healthy bee colonies. Whether your plan is to harvest honey, provide pollination or just promote “bee-kind” – sick stressed bees are not what we want.

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.

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. Also, modern bee colonies require periodic inspections.

Queen loss or pest problems are two major concerns for the beekeepers of today. If you are unable to “tend” to your bees in a reasonable manner, most hives will die within a year or two.

Large number of beehives in apiary image.

Swarming Contributes to Apiary Growth

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. 

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.  Many beekeepers have bees solely for honey production 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.

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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 out there and think – hmmm do I have too many hives in my backyard?

One beekeeper smoking bees in hive.

How Many Colonies Should a Beekeeper Have?

In most beginner beekeeping classes (for sure in my class), we encourage beginner 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 beehives to keep on your property?  That number is different for each beekeeper.  It is mostly 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. Take it easy in that first year or two until you have a better understanding of colony needs.

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

Too Many Beehives in One Location

Experienced beekeepers understand the dynamics of honey bee life. Larger beekeepers have employees to help maintain the hives. Yet, labor is not the only concern. They still must consider the amount of forage available.

If the bees must fly for long distances to gather food, this “costs” the colony a lot in expended energy. When the goal of having bees is only for pollination, migratory beekeepers temporarily place many boxes in one area. But, this is just for a short term – as determined by the needs of the crop.

How many beehives per acre? Well, it depends on where that acre is located. In the middle of hundreds of acres of sweet clover in bloom – the area would support a good number of bees.

Because the nectar sources of each area are so diverse, we must go with a generalization. For non-commercial beekeepers, the number I hear most often is 2-3 hives per acre.

A reminder to the small scale beekeepers, this is in reference to the foraging area for the colonies – not the space where the hives are actually sitting.

Large number of small beehives in a beekeepers yard.

Problems When One Beekeeper Has Too Many Hives

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.

  • Increased feeding due to forage competition
  • Violation of local regulations
  • Complaints from neighbors
  • No budget for needed equipment
  • Unable to give bees health treatments due to time or money
  • Weaker hives with sick bees

The area surrounding your bee yard has a certain level of available pollen and nectar. Hopefully, many plants bloom over a long period of the season. The more hives in one spot, the more competition for the workers collecting resources needed by the colony.

Having a large apiary with too many hives to be supported by local flora means the beekeeper will need to feed more often.

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, bee pooping on vehicles, swarming issues etc.

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

If your apiary is too large, it is also more difficult to handle special situations such as protecting the hives during mosquito spraying.

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

Preventing Bee Colony Overload

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. 

You Don’t Have to Catch Every Swarm – Really !

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 you will need to help them requeen the colony.

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.

In addition to space, foraging area, legalities etc, consider your personal schedule. If you have a full-time job, a couple of hives in the backyard may be all that you need.

A retired person or someone with a lot of help from family or friends, can take care of my hives. Don’t overload yourself and have this wonderful experience become a dreaded chore.

Now I know you are going to say, you can never have too many.  We all feel this way to a degree.  However, the issue is – how many beehives can 1 person manage – “well”. Providing proper management requires physical effort and time.

And, having too many beehives in one location does make more work for the beekeeper. In the world of beekeeping, our major goal should always be to be a good keeper of the bees.