Can you keep bees on a boat, is not a question I ever expected to hear, but it was recently posed to me by a farmer. My initial reaction was a horrified “No way!” but once I’d recovered my composure somewhat, I realized that I didn’t know for sure, and my reply was based on emotion rather than fact. Time to change that…
Bees can be kept on a boat, barge, or ship, but there should be ample browsing for them, either on the vessel or on a nearby shore. The hives should be weather-proofed with paint, varnish, or wax and protected against fire. Excessive noise and smells should be avoided at all costs.
I learned early in my research that a huge amount depends on the size of the boat, its proximity to land or an alternative source of nourishment for the bees, and local by-laws. Rather than a ‘fad,’ mobile beekeeping has been around for thousands of years, with the ancient Egyptians providing the earliest records for us.
Keeping Bees On A Boat : A Brief History
The earliest evidence of beekeeping was recorded as early as Egypt’s Fifth Dynasty (in the Old Kingdom) in the sun temple of the king Nyuserre Ini, its fifth ruler. In the temple is a relief depicting beekeeping.
In the upper reaches of Egypt’s river Nile, honey plants bloom around six weeks earlier than they do at the river mouth. In winter, whole towers were collected from the original clay hives-tubes, placed on reed-rafts like barges, and sent down the river from the northern apiaries to the first rapids.
Beekeepers rowed or poled their rafts along the Nile between the mouth of the river and the southernmost reaches, following the blooming honey plants each year. For at least four thousand years, the Egyptians have made hives in the same way, using pipes of clay or Nile mud, which they often stack on top of one another. These are easily transported by boat.
Should You Keep Your Bees on a Boat?
During my research, a beekeeper in Delaware emailed me and informed me that in several of the tupelo swamps, some beekeepers do keep their hives on shallow-draught boats.
This is presumably to move the hives to areas where honey plants are plentiful.
However, he also suggested that boat-based beekeeping would have the advantage of avoiding bear attacks, particularly by black bears.
Dangers Of Boat-Based Beekeeping
Keeping bees is a relaxing pursuit under favorable conditions, but moving your hives on a boat does present some concerns, all of which can be attended to in advance or avoided with some planning.
Waterproofing A Beehive :
Water gets into most places outdoors, and failing to waterproof your hives may lead to some serious issues, particularly if the hives are on a boat. Restoring and replacing hives damaged by wind and rain is not how you want to spend your leisure hours, but there’s a further downside to not waterproofing a beehive:
Water that manages to penetrate the hive leads to moisture in inaccessible spots and can be a breeding ground for many harmful organisms. Molds will take hold, encouraging diseases and fungal growth, and you can lose the entire hive in a very short time. Damp conditions usually mean a drop in temperatures in a hive, and you can lose the colony to cold.
The hive can be waterproofed with clear varnish, paint, exterior stains, or wax dip. Ensure you tightly seal all joints and cracks for maximum longevity and waterproofing. I’ll discuss this in more detail below.
The Effect Of Noise & Smell On A Beehive:
Some boats are startlingly noisy and smelly, particularly those with diesel engines, which will disturb the colony. The best possibility for a boat-based beehive setup is on a barge, punt, or raft. The last two have no engines and are powered by poles or oars when going upstream and can simply drift with the flow when heading the opposite way.
A barge does have an engine (usually diesel,) but this is at the boat’s stern, or rear, and a long way from the bow, which is where you would presumably house the colony. This is not ideal, but it does give you somewhere to sleep, cook, wash clothing, etc. if you will be moving regularly.
Even when a honeybee is more than a mile away, it can smell a particular flower or toxin. The bee’s olfactory sense is 100 times more sensitive than a human’s nose and so acute that it is being considered for sniffing out COVID-19 in people. It is already being used to locate cancer tumors in patients, thus providing early diagnoses.
One can only speculate then on the effect of smoky diesel engines (are there any other kind?) on our winged friends.
Bees do not hear with their ears, but they ‘hear’ the sound with their entire body, especially their antennas and sensitive body hairs. During their wagging dance, honeybees produce the ‘sound’ of 250 oscillations per second (250Hz).
The bee is undoubtedly affected by noise pollution, which affects their natural behavior in a specific way. When encountering a noise of around 300Hz and 1kHz, honeybees have been known to stop moving altogether, almost as if they are in shock. This state of stupor lasts about 20 minutes.
Yes, bees can fly away when fire approaches, but on a boat, fire is almost always catastrophic. Once the fire takes hold of a vessel, the hives are almost certainly doomed and the trapped bees with them.
How Do I Negate The Dangers Of Boat-Based Beekeeping?
Keeping bees on a boat is not without inherent dangers, and here are three areas that will require attention if you wish to bee bees safely on a boat or ship.
- Noise & Smell: Noise and smell can, for the most part, be avoided with planning. When you plan your route, industrial areas or those with jackhammers and other excessively loud power tools should be given a wide berth. There will probably be no plants for the colony anyway, so this is not a huge concern.
- Fire: Remove all flammable material like oil-soaked rags, solvents, etc., from the area and ensure you have fire extinguishers on hand.
- Waterproofing the hives: The cheapest and quickest method to waterproof your beehive is to paint it with oil-based paint or latex. Painting your hive with oil-based paint is the most common method and allows you to get creative with color.
- You can also use a clear polyurethane varnish, marine varnish (my recommendation), outdoor wood stain, or a water-dispelling oil like linseed.
- Wax sealing the wood is another good option, and a combination of your own bees’ wax and linseed oil forms an excellent protective barrier. This method allows you to use your own hive to protect itself – no better feeling!
You can keep bees on a boat with very little fuss, and you will have the added advantage of being protected from land-based problems like bears, skunks, and the like.